Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Egypt

I love Egypt--the exotic country, the ancient history, and the people.

In another time, I arrived in Egypt on a mission. I was part of a company that, like so many others throughout the ages, had come to trade and do business with this ancient land, at the cradle and crossroad of civilization. I spent months working the interior, immersed in the savage sands and searing sun of the scorching Sahara. It started as a hellish struggle, difficult and punishing those first few weeks. The unrelenting heat, the fierce landscape, and ferocious sandstorms razed our camp and ravaged our numbers.

We barely survived those first troubles and trials. And after the initial shock wore off, we questioned our commitment and plans. We pondered a retreat, wondering if perhaps a withdraw from this vicious hellscape was in our best interest. We had lost so much in such a short time. The extensive losses had left us in a critical condition.

But we had come so far, and while broken, we were not yet beaten. We had learned the hard way the truth that we had been blind to upon our arrival in this ancient land. For any endeavor to succeed in these godforsaken sands, we must adapt our methods and listen to the wisdom of those who dwelt and thrived in this rugged, unforgiving desert world. Only then were we able to recover. And eventually, we found success in our venture in this fearsome, remote landscape.

We were totally humbled after that first month. But soon enough, we adapted and embraced the culture and the locals. Once we learned to put aside our prejudices and misconceptions, the people were willing to share with us their knowledge. The foreboding desert that once assaulted us soon became hauntingly beautiful and marvelous in its wonders. Against all odds and to our surprise, this once pagan, strange, foreign land soon felt like home.

Later, when I was relocated to the mouth of the Nile delta, I was mesmerized by the stunning shores of the Mediterranean. I was in the city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, home of the Ptolemy pharaohs, the place where Cleopatra met with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony from antiquity. This was the home of the Great Library of Alexandria.

At one time, this was the greatest, wealthiest, and most beautiful and scholastic city in all the ancient world. It was the leading city of civilization. This was the site of the Pharos of Alexandria, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the last of the seven ancient wonders of the world, an engineering marvel. For several centuries, it was the tallest building in the entire world.

Just a few years earlier before our arrival, scientists had discovered remnants of the great lighthouse that had fallen into the sea after three massive earthquakes devastated the structure and region. The glorious treasures and relics of the city were still being excavated and salvaged from the depths of the sea. Here was an ancient, legendary city, and I was walking its pathways and streets.

And that was the astonishing thing about Egypt. There was so much history everywhere. This was the cradle of civilization, the place where humanity began to make a mark on the world, the crossroads of trade and knowledge and culture. And here, the last remaining ancient wonder of the world still stood, the Great Pyramid of Giza.

I was astonished at the magnificence and marvels of the Pyramids. The original Sphinx was much smaller than the one at Luxor in Las Vegas. The one in Cairo--really, just a stone's throw from the city streets--was about two stories high. But it was still fascinating and intriguing in its composition and unique design.
Great Sphinx, pyramids and Sphinx Temple in the forefront / Francesco Gasparetti



The stones that made up the Giza pyramids were huge! Some were about the size of a small car! I marveled at how ingenious those ancient Egyptians were at constructing these mountains. Because really, these pyramids were as tall and wide as mountains.

What kind of tools and techniques did the ancients use to build such grandiose structures? How many Hebrews and workers and people did it take to hoist and craft together these momentous buildings? It boggles the mind. And it's no wonder some believe that space aliens were involved. But that's just an insult to the ingenuity and creativity of these amazing ancient people.

I remember the day we visited the Pyramids. We almost cancelled our trip due to a terrorist attack at the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt. Upper Egypt was actually farther south of Egypt, up towards where the Nile flowed from. Ironically, the delta where the Nile emptied north into the Mediterranean is called Lower Egypt. Confusing right? You'd think Lower Egypt would be south. But nope. Lower Egypt is where the Nile met the Mediterranean in the north. Cairo and Giza is where the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx are located. Ancient Thebes, modern Luxor, in the south is where the Valley of the Kings is located.

I'm so glad and thankful that we decided to go see the Pyramids at Giza in Cairo. We piled on the bus early at sunrise, eating some sandwiches for breakfast. We needed to enter the city early enough to make it through traffic. And in Cairo, there was always traffic.

The drivers here were reckless. They didn't obey traffic signs nor signals. They didn't pay attention to the lanes either! Some cars crowded into a single lane side by side! A few actually went against traffic! But at least there were less donkey carts fighting for the same road space like up in Alexandria. It was exciting for us to watch our local bus driver deftly maneuver his way through the chaos. And we cheered him when we finally and safely reached our dusty, crowded destination.

We saw them as we crossed into the city, those fantastic Pyramids from a far off distance. And we were agog. What an incredible, dreamlike vista--gigantic, brilliantly engineered structures rising out of the desolate desert! And when we turned and parked off a street by a block of buildings in a lively neighborhood with shops and restaurants and apartments, we were stunned that the Pyramids were just on the other side--really just a stone's throw away! This was the backyard of the block. And what a glorious view!

It was hot and dirty and incredibly crowded and noisy. So many people came to see the Pyramids, kicking up dust and debris. They've been coming here since the Pyramids were first constructed thousands of years ago. And people were still coming here; and today, we were among them. And I'm certain that long after I'm gone, people will still come to see the Pyramids, to bear witness to one of humankind's most ingenious and enduring masterpieces.

The guide had warned us not bring any valuables, to keep a tight grip on purses and bags, and keep money deep in the front pockets of our pants. There were plenty of petty thieves operating in these parts. And the majority were gangs of juveniles targeting clueless tourists!

No sooner had we taken three steps off the pavement, we were suddenly swarmed by small children holding up trinkets, yelling at us to buy their goods. And a minute later, they scattered as a cop riding a horse and wielding a switch came to chase away the little children.

At first, I was appalled. Hey, leave those poor kids alone! They're just trying to earn a living! I used to sell stuff when I was a small child, so I felt a connection and empathy for these small children, hustling under the hot sun and in the dusty desert to make some money.

Thirty seconds later, my outrage against the cop and empathy for the children quickly turned to disbelief and astonishment when the other tourists next to us started exclaiming, "My watch!", "My camera!", and "My wallet!".

It was suddenly clear that we had just been robbed by the mob of children! They weren't trying to sell us trinkets and souvenirs. That was the distraction to grab our attention. And they kept pushing up against us so we wouldn't feel them picking our pockets and purses and bags. Those sneaky little devils! I was both shocked and impressed at their skills and trickery. I suspect that thieves have probably been doing this for thousands of years, ever since those very first tourists came to see the grand Pyramids.

We laughed at the absurdity of it all. Then we proceeded to make our way to the Sphinx and Pyramids. Along the way, we encountered more vendors trying to sell us their wares. We bargained with some--having learned the art of shopping in Middle Eastern markets from our time in the interior and from living in Alexandria.

It was uncomfortable at first, bargaining with a seller over the price of an item. We grew up in a Western culture, where prices were set. But in this ancient part of the world, people bargained. And for us to adapt, we had to learn to haggle with the sellers. They expected it. It was part of their culture. And soon enough, we began to get comfortable with the practice. And that made the experience of Egypt so much more interesting and inviting.

The markets here were just so fascinating. The atmosphere was vivacious and chaotic and intriguing. They were full of exotic spices, perfumes, silk, textiles, and so many new and different varieties of food that were foreign to us. Here, they still sold gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It was so easy to imagine the three wise men shopping for the baby Jesus' gifts at a market, bargaining for the best prices. I was amazed at the amount of gold and silver and other precious metals, gemstones, and goods that were traded and sold in the markets.

Strange musical instruments and household implements and tools were on display. Rugs of all patterns and colors and weaves invited attention, people rummaging through the many rows at the many stalls. Pottery, paintings, jewelry, and dishes were being sold alongside stacks of papyrus scrolls, mummified cats (or some other small critters), jars of scented oils, and t-shirts. Entertainers sang otherworldly songs and performed exotic dances to capture our attention.

But I was drawn to the metalwork, specifically vases. I don't usually buy vases. I don't like how fragile they are, no matter how appealing they appeared. It's the same reason why I don't buy ceramic teapots and avoid owning pottery. Clumsy or tipsy me was more likely to break them. And I didn't like the thought of cleaning up all those sharp, shattered pieces.

But these vases were made of metal--strong and stunning and so unique. They were some of the most beautifully handcrafted, hammered, and forged vases that I had ever seen. Such astounding masterpieces! And I couldn't resist being captivated by their intricate designs and flourishing, vibrant colors. Muslim cultures don't usually portray people or animals or trees in their artwork. So they focused on spectacular geometric shapes and intricate symmetrical designs. And they came in a rich variety of hues and forms and arrangements.

To the math and science nerd in me, I was astonished at the patterns that looked like fractals and geometry and trigonometry in practice. The artist in me was stunned by their magnificent and wondrous simple beauty and breathtaking intricacies. The farmboy in me just knew that these were absolutely gorgeous, and my mother would love them. And I was right. Mom was thrilled. She absolutely loved them. So did the rest of the folks back home. My family told me so, and so did some of my friends who still lived back home in the remote coast.

When Mom used some of the vases in her designs when it was our family's turn to decorate the church, it created a sensation. People crowded the alter before services began, just to get a closer look at these fabulous vases. The pastor even acknowledged just how incredible the church decorations were that day, noting the shimmering, glimmering vases that enhanced the radiance and vibrancy of the flowers.

More people actually came for the second afternoon service, which was unheard of. Usually, less people came for the second service, having had their spiritual fill from the morning prayers. But that afternoon, more people had heard the news from their neighbors and relatives, and they made a pilgrimage to see Mom's marvelous designs and these unique vases from the exotic, faraway lands so integral in the Bible and history and founding of the faith. The prophets and Savior walked these lands. And here were splendid creations from those sacred spaces and holy places.

After that Sunday, people started coming over to the farmhouse to admire the vases. And Mom enjoyed showing the scintillating vases to visitors and guests. I had sent home as many as I could find. And they were unbelievably inexpensive, so I bought a whole lot to ship home. To the locals and tourists, the metallic vases seemed mundane, ordinary when compared to the precious metals and spices and perfumed oils being traded at the market. But to me, they were incredible finds, fantastic works of art.

While other people were shopping for jewelry or textiles at the markets, I was amassing a big collection of metallic vases. So many were just so spectacular--they presented in all colors, shapes, and sizes. Our farmhouse suddenly became an attraction, serving as an unofficial museum for our small village that lacked a space for art.

And after my mother died, her large collection of vases was divided among my older sisters and sisters-in-law. They were counted as some of Mom's most precious treasures. I didn't mind my sisters divvying up the vases. They had my full support and blessing. It was nice to know that the vases would be cherished by the others as precious mementos of Mom. She loved her alluring vases.

But honestly, for me, those glamorous vases were a painful, heartbreaking reminder that Mom was gone. Their haunting beauty would only make me sad to realize that I was an orphan now, that my beloved mother had passed on. Better that those exquisite vases be in the company of people who admired their elegance and found inspiration in their grace. They were a great source of joy to Mom, and they would bring that happiness to my sisters and their families.

The markets of Egypt and the Middle East were full of so many incredible finds and discoveries. They sold all sorts of livestock, too. Horses, goats, sheep, chickens, and cows, along with donkeys and crocodiles! They even sold camels here--for meat! Delicious, incredibly rich camel milk and meat were sold in the various shops that made up the markets.

And speaking of camels, there were a lot near the Pyramids. The owners were offering rides on and opportunities to pose for pictures with the camels for a price. It was a tourist trap. But the cost was pretty cheap. Though, the guide warned us that some unscrupulous owners could take us for a ride farther out in the desert, and they'd only bring us back for more money. Now I understood why so many cops on horses patrolled the area. There were a lot of con artists operating here, and perhaps they've always been here since the first days when the Pyramids were just built.

Only the Great Pyramid of Khufu was opened to the public at that time. The government was doing ongoing work to preserve the site. And we appreciated that. Erosion had taken its toll on the Sphinx and Pyramids. So any effort to preserve and restore the site, keep it intact and protected is a great and valuable undertaking.

We scrambled up the huge stones and found the secret entrance that the ancient builders hid and buried thousands of years ago. And later, archeologists (and thieves) uncovered and reopened the secret entrance, now under the care of the government.

There was a line to get into the pyramid. And it was crowded. Inside, we were surprised to find a wooden plank path that led up to the top floors of the pyramid. We expected stone steps, not a wooden, recently made path. But then again, the old path had been removed by the builders to protect the treasures of the pharaoh.

And speaking of treasures, there were none left in the pyramid. All the contents had been taken by the museum. And that includes the hieroglyphic walls! The pyramid was empty. And the climb up was long, steep, and incredibly difficult. You had to lean forward as you climbed higher and higher. And when you finally reached the sarcophagus, it was just an empty room with the stone remains of the tomb that actually held the coffins.

We were so disappointed to find just empty stones. And it was incredibly humid and hot and oppressive in the sarcophagus room. Then it dawned on us, Well, Duh! Of course it's hot, humid, and oppressive. It's a freakin tomb! And then it felt exciting and morbid to realize that were in someone's grave--an ancient pharaoh's grave!

And honestly, I was glad the treasures were in a museum, safe from thieves. But let's be clear. I don't like the idea of digging up mummies and putting them on display. These are dead people. Let them rest in peace. They were buried with respect by their people, yet we disrespectfully dig up the corpses and put them on display, charging money for people to see them, like it's some sort of freak show.

I wonder how these archeologists and museum directors would feel if it were their parents, their spouses, and their children whose graves were dug up and bodies were put on display for strangers to pay money to see. People are people. Their remains need to be respected, regardless of how long ago they were laid to rest.

After exploring the sarcophagus room, we looked at the other places and rooms in the pyramid that were opened to the public. These were empty of treasures, too. But it was still neat and a bit creepy to realize that we were exploring a tomb, someone's grave. And when we were done, it was a whole lot easier coming down the wooden plank path. This time, you had to lean back and sort of run down. It was actually a whole lot faster and fun coming down and exiting the pyramid.

Outside, we were able to climb up the sides of the pyramid. And then we sat down on the huge stones and chilled for a bit in the cool shadow of the pyramid. Then we walked up the other end of the plateau and were stunned at the amazing sight of the Sphinx lined up with the Pyramids. It was such an incredible view, and it made the mysterious Pyramids seem more enigmatic and awesome. Truly, these were a great wonder of the world. And we were so glad to be here to see and climb and explore these fantastic structures.

For lunch, we ventured into the city block to check out the street food and local cafes. We figured the best places to eat were the ones that looked and smelled delicious and were full of locals. When in doubt, look for the crowds. Find the places where the locals like to eat, and you will eat well. And boy, did we eat well that day, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the city, full of locals going about their lives and tourists checking out the sights. It made the whole lunch experience lively and thrilling.

I love the food of Egypt. The food was exotic, enticing, and absolutely exciting and delicious! My first experience of the local fare was when I was lucky enough to have been invited to breakfast by village elders. I had gone exploring the small village that morning, our first time out in the country. I was fascinated by the villagers waking up and starting their day. They were friendly and courteous, and I made a sincere effort to return their respect and stay out of their way.

I was taken aback by their different structures and customs and clothing; their language was foreign and strange to my ears. But I recognized their actions and routines as they set out to work their fields and care for their livestock and homes. I grew up in a remote, coastal farming community. And the farmer in me recognized the agricultural actions of these people.

And when those elders saw me as I made my way through the narrow paths between the old buildings, they invited me to join them. I accepted their hospitality and was blown away by their kindness to strangers. It was their custom, and I was honored and grateful for their invitation. I did my best to recall the advice the guides had given us about interacting with the locals and tried my hardest not to offend my hosts.

The local goat cheese and flat bread the elders offered me were absolutely delectable. It was the best goat cheese that I've ever had, one of the best cheeses ever! And I was treated to a delighful spicy dish of eggs poached in a tomatoes and onions chili sauce. I later learned that it was called shakshuka by the natives. And it's a favorite dish and staple of North African, Berber, and Middle Eastern cuisine.

Along with shakshuka, I discovered hummus (cooked mashed chickpeas mixed with tahini, spices, herbs, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt); falafel (ground seasoned chickpeas shaped into rounds and deep fried, served with tahini sauce and with pickled veggies, salads, and hot sauce); and shawarma (seasoned meat and veggies grilled vertically, then shaved into bits to make a sandwich, like a Middle Eastern gyro). And tahini--a flavorful regional condiment made of ground toasted sesame seeds.

I loved these spicy, savory, divine dishes. I had never tasted so many new and fantastic spices and food before. The fragrant scents, varied colors, and different textures and preparations made for a scintillating feast for the senses. It was a revelation, an outstanding culinary adventure and a scrumptious discovery of Berber, North African, Middle Eastern, and Levant cuisine. Multiple cultures and a long history of trade and civilizations had created extraordinary food and a unique culture.

So much culture and history happened here. This land witnessed the rise and fall of so many civilizations and nations, the comings and goings and intermingling of so many peoples and ideas and beliefs. Myth lived and walked on these shores. The story of humanity happened here long before the Bible was written. Stories of the Bible happened here. And history still happens here.

Apart from the history and culture, the very landscape of Egypt was exceptionally sublime. The desert, so forbidden and dangerous, was a dazzling and ravishing place full of secret wonders. And the beaches of the Mediterranean coast were superb with white soft sand and cool blue waters.

My favorite activity during my time in Alexandria was to go for a swim after a morning workout, just as the sun was rising. I didn't have to go to work til nine, so I had an hour to enjoy the waters. And when I got off at five in the afternoon, I had enough time to spend a few hours more in the sea until the sun set late in the summer evening.

I spent so much time at the beach that I returned home many months later several shades darker and with a different, laid back, Middle Eastern frame of mind. No need to rush. Things will get done eventually. No need to panic and be harried to and fro. Schedules were suggestions, not commandments. And there was always time for tea, good food, and to rest during the hottest hours of the day.

The people back home were flabbergasted at first upon my return. I looked different, and I was acting different. My behavior had changed. And my coworkers who did not join us in the company's overseas ventures were baffled and confused; then they got irritated and weren't too pleased with my chill, no worries approach. Some actually went out of their way to remind me that I wasn't in the Middle East anymore.

This is America! And we like to be on time, have to do lists, and stick to schedules! Stress ran through our veins. Getting frazzled and hassled and mad during traffic was the way we did things. I ignored them at first. But weeks later, I resumed my American frame of mind. But I did manage to make time to enjoy some tea, savor a good snack, and appreciate the quiet and peaceful moments of life. And these little changes have made my life so much more pleasant. And I owe it all to my time wandering the desert and swimming in the Mediterranean.

The lifeguards on duty at our special section of the Alexandrian shores were members of our company. And they admitted that it was annoying to find me so cheerful at the beach so damn early in the morning while they were still struggling to be awake. I was the first person they saw at the beginning of the day. And I was the last one they saw at sunset. I made those lifeguards earn their pay.

A few times, they panicked when they looked out some mornings and saw just my chin as I floated on my back far out in the sea. I looked like the fin of a shark in the early morning light. And after scaring them a few times, the lifeguards got some binoculars so they could spot and differentiate people (mostly me) from any sharks.

There were never any sharks on the coast then. But a few years later, a shark attack did occur in the area, a rare and surprising occurrence. I remember reading about it on the news, and it felt so weird and terrifying to realize that a shark attack occurred not too far from where I swam everyday I was in Alexandria. I count myself lucky and blessed to have been protected by the gods and spirits of the region.

Though the speed of life on the coastal city of Alexandria was much more chaotic and faster than the remote village of the interior, the people here were just as friendly and accommodating to us. I made many new friends with the desert villagers and hired interpreters and guides. And when I was reassigned to Alexandria, I made friends with a lot of the locals and contractors and vendors.

A lot of my new friends were in the Egyptian military. Our company had dealings with the government. And that meant a joint venture with the military. These soldiers were my age, just young kids fresh out of high school, still in our late teens, just barely reaching twenty. So it was easy to make a connection.

Even though there was a language barrier, we were curious enough about each other and respected each other enough to try to get along. We started to teach each other phrases and signals and bits of culture. I learned some Arabic phrases and taught them some English.

We sat down for lunch together. They introduced us to Egyptian food and drinks, and we shared our canned American goods and candy with them. A few times, we almost caused an international incident, the first was when we fed them hot dogs. They couldn't eat pork, but we were able to show them that the hot dogs were all beef. Or at least it said so on the packaging. The interpreter translated for us and explained to our new comrades.

Then there was the time we took them out to the beach we were staying at. It was a sectioned off resort area that catered to Western tourists. No locals came here. So you can imagine the shock of our fellow Egyptian friends upon seeing tourists in skimpy bikinis. They were stunned to see so much flesh on display. And they were conflicted. We felt bad, but eventually, we convinced them to stay for the beach BBQ we had planned. And I got them all some shades from the nearby market, so they could wear them, look cool, and be free to scan the beach bodies in comfort.

We had a lot of fun working with our Egyptian buddies. It was a great experience, a pleasing cultural exchange, and we had a great time working together on the joint project. We even started hanging out after hours, going to the places only the locals frequented. It was fun going to those places and trying new things. Those guys were awesome, and they made us feel at home. And when we left the country, we exchanged contact information with our new friends. The addresses they gave us were written in Arabic by their own hands.

I tried to stay in contact. But the letters I wrote were sent back as undeliverable. The same thing happened to my friends at the company. Our letters were returned in the mail. I wondered if it was because I did not write the Arabic addresses correctly, or maybe my friends had been reassigned or relocated. Whatever happened, I hoped my friends were fine.

In time, I did not think of my friends as often as I used to. Life happens. Next thing you know, years had passed by quickly. Then the Arab Spring happened, and I immediately thought of my friends. I was worried about them. I wondered if they were caught up in the chaos and turmoil. I prayed and hoped for their safety. After all these years, I hoped that they were all right. I hope that they survived the revolution and are safe and well. These are good people. And they have a right to have a safe home and to live peacefully and happily.

I don't know what happened to my friends. And it's likely that I never will. Perhaps we'll all meet again in the next life. The ancient Egyptians believed in an afterlife. And I sincerely hope that I get to see my friends again, if not in this world, then the next. I would like to know that they are safe and happy. I would like to share their company once more, to laugh, to feast, to celebrate our friendship and shared experiences.

We don't always know what life has in store for us. We don't even know how much time we have left to live. So live each day as if it were your last. Do the things that make you happy. Embrace the people you love and care for. Take every day as an opportunity to find joy, have adventures, and make new friends and have new experiences.

Time and life don't stop for anything or anyone. So live life to the fullest, do the things that you want to do, and go after your dreams. Life is for the living, so live life as best as you can, and be the best you that you can be. Be kind to others and be good to yourself, because kindness makes the world better and absolutely more wonderful.

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Deserts