Monday, January 3, 2011

Thoughts on Egypt

Well it's a day later and Mom and I have taken full advantage of our B&B's facilities to get as caught up with sleep and non-Egyptian or cruise food as possible. Now, before we head out to check out Oxford more fully and dive into the adventure at hand, I've had a chance to reflect a little bit more on the trip just behind.

Egypt evoked an immensely complicated group of feelings for me that I'm still struggling to fully understand. On one hand, it was just incredible: sights, sounds, and experiences that simply boggled the mind and overwhelmed me with wonder. I couldn't get over the windswept emptiness of the desert contrasted with the green lushness of the shoreline and the hazy beauty of the Nile. Many of the sites we visited were places that I've studied and spent years pining to see; to actually get to stand before them, understanding on a whole new level the true vastness of scale and expansiveness of the vision that the Egyptians operated under, could not be described as anything less than a dream come true.

Nothing of what we came to see disappointed (with the possible, very reserved exception of Hatshepsut's funerary temple, but that was only because my expectations were so unbelievably high), and even some of the weirder places we visited (like the Egyptian Museum of Cairo--containing all of King Tut's treasure, Narmer's Palette, and over 200,000 other priceless relics--which has the overall appearance of a drafty, unlit cow barn or vast forgotten basement storage facility) were unexpectedly delightful. The paintings and carvings were a feast for the eyes, and the complete temples were a celebration of scale and triumph.

And yet, so many other parts of the experience were so problematic. For all that I knew of it cerebrally, I had never truly understood the poverty of Egypt, or the devastating effects that poverty had on the landscape and on the people. It was heartbreaking to see the Nile canals simply overflowing with garbage and then watch children come down to those very same canals--their only water source-- to gather big jugs of water to bring back to their families.

I thought I had seen poor and struggling farmers in the United States, but they were nothing compared to the vast swaths of people I now saw who couldn't even afford motorized vehicles and relied on donkeys and horses to transport themselves and their goods. As a horse lover this was especially sad, as I couldn't even begin to count the number of emaciated, lame, and miserable creatures I saw, and yet I could hardly blame their owners because it was obvious that there just weren't enough resources to go around. I realized how utterly naive I was to the non-Western world, and to the problems of crushing poverty. It was a realization just as eye-opening as the glory of the pyramids, but not nearly as enjoyably so.

Egypt was also my first taste of patriarchal society, and I cannot say that I enjoyed it very much at all. I don't enjoy chivalry (having doors opened for me, chairs pulled out for me, etc) in the first place, and so you can imagine how I felt with these principles projected onto every facet of life. We had guides who wouldn't even make eye contact with my mother (even though it was she who organized the trip) and would insist on speaking to my father even when he directly told them to defer to her. When my brother's girlfriend got randomly upgraded to business class on one of our hopper flights, the man helping us couldn't stop laughing because a woman would be flying business class-- I swear there were almost tears in his eyes he found the concept so absurdly hilarious. I wouldn't even call myself a feminist exactly, but I found this treatment galling to my very core. Of course, we also met a great number of utterly delightful people as well, so I wouldn't want to paint the entire country in a bad color. There just did seem to be a higher chauvinist ratio than would be found at home.

Despite whatever ambivalence I may have towards certain aspects of what I experienced, I'm still so unbelievably thankful for the opportunity to take this trip at all. The pyramids are some of the oldest tourist attractions in the world, and I definitely felt myself as a part of that tradition while I was there: it was one of those moments where, through this work of art, I felt connected to a vast understanding of the depth of the past, and a clear recognition of the infinity of the future, in ways that very few other experiences can achieve.

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