Monday, December 31, 2007
LONG VERSION: My tolerance for the hassle-happy, obnoxious high pressure Egyptian sales people in Luxor's souk (market) was, for whatever reason, remarkably high this afternoon. I had successfully negotiated a couple of cheap cab fares and was feeling high and mighty in my newfound bargaining skills.
But I didn't go looking for the usual pile of fake papyrus, cheap alabaster, raffish glitzy waterpipes, and other kitschy garbage the Egyptians dump on hapless tourists by the truckload. I entered one shop that looked to be selling (what appeared to me anyway) genuine antiques. I asked the guy where I could find some old or ancient Egyptian coins. He took me a couple blocks down where streed vendors peddled some of the tackiest junk and introduced me to a dodgy looking old fellow with a toothless grin, a knarly, dread-locked beard and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
I told him I was looking for old coins. He immediately looked around like I'd just asked for 3 kilos of cocaine or Israeli sub-machine guns by the truckload. He then fished out some grimy silver coins with Arabic written on them. He asked if I wanted to see more. I said yes and he swore me to secrecy before leaving his pile of wooden cats and showed me to his apartment. He was obviously putting on a show, but whatever.
If I thought this man was suspect before, his 'apartment' did nothing to put my mind at ease. His only furniture consisted of an old stained matress I wouldn't let a dog sleep on. Nothing else but dirt, trash, and thousands of cigarette butts in the corners decorated his floor. I supressed my gag reflex long enough for him to fish out three plastic bags full of coins in random order.
The only ones I knew anything about were several old Indian Rupees and three Eisenhower dollars. He looked to have dozens of coins from British Egypt before World War Two. I was certain they weren't worth much though, and he was asking for some pretty ludicrous prices for them. He also had a bunch of what he said were Saudi coins. But most of his collection appeared to be fairly recent American coins, euros, and some of the former European currencies. The ones I could identify seemed to mostly date from the 1960's and 1970's.
He did show me an old silver coin that he said was from Saudi Arabia. I liked it and made the biggest mistake in the book while coin collecting: I bought something without knowing anything about it. Sadly, I still can't read most of the Arabic numerals. But I strongly suspected it was at least 50-60 years old. It is fairly large, and I could tell that it WAS silver. The coin also has a VERY ornate Arabic Calligraphy inscription on one side. I liked it.
I asked him for a price and he said 1600 Egyptian pounds (almost 300 US dollars). I smiled, but silently balked. I threw out 150 Egyptian pounds (about 25-30 dollars). He went on and on in his raspy chainsmoking voice about how poor he was, how I was so privileged to see his secret collections, how I was insulting him and breaking the rules by not compromising and lecturing me on how to bargain. I responded with two hundred Egyptian pounds and silently groaned inside. He started all over again with the same nonsense.
I got up and said "Thank you for showing me everything, but I don't have that much money with me and I have to go." Then he got all upset and threw all sorts of protestations and offered me a "special goodwill discount" as long as I promised to return and do business with him and to refer friends and family to him. The special discount was 1300 pounds. I got up to leave again and suddenly the price goes down to 600 pounds. Now I knew he was full of hot air (or cigarette smoke in his case).
In the end, he sold me the coin for 200 Egyptian pounds, which is way more than I had ever planned to spend. Without knowing anything more than a novice American coin collector, I would say I certainly overpaid. I'm going to take it to Mr. Said in the UAS business office or an old souk somewhere in Kuwait to see if they'll identify it for me and tell me more.
The character was certainly a master at bargaining, but it was immediately obvious he knew next to nothing about coins. He could speak and communicate in a broken English, but he obviously had trouble following some more sophisticated questions about the coin. He couldn't read the European coins, mostly old Francs and Italian Liras, and frequently got them confused (something to which I did not draw his attention). So all I really had to go on was my own estimation of the coin and its value.
But here in the Arab world, I'm totally in the dark about coin values. I know when something is silver or gold, and have got a good feel for "size," but I'm not an expert. And who knows what this coin might fetch in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Egypt. Clearly, I need to do my homework when I decide to drop 30, 40 bucks or more.
Thinking back, I think I shouldn't have bought the coin at all, or AT LEAST read a guide of some sort on Arab coins. With American coins, I've got a pretty rough idea what the more popular coins are worth. If it is American, chances are I have an example of it, or have seen examples of it. I could identify almost ANY coin minted in America and probably tell you a little something about it. I'm weaker and less knowledgeable when it comes to grading coins and their conditions. But this is only because I don't buy the exotic rarities where the tiniest microscopic flaw could mean a difference in price of hundreds of dollars. I've never spent more than 90 dollars on a coin or bought something that was in mint state. I've also got the knowledge to navigate the Japanese coin market, although I'm no expert.
I don't think I was completely HAD by this guy though. It's about the size of the old, silver half dollars and its in pretty good shape. Any of the American Walking Liberty Half Dollars or Franklin Half Dollars would fetch in the range I paid for, so I don't think I overpaid too much (if I did in fact overpay). What bothers me is that I have no idea.
On the bright side though, I got to see Karnak temple today (below), which is relatively spectacular and amazing. You can see the pictures here.
Friday, December 28, 2007
Unlike most people, I got past loathing, hating, and vainly fighting sand after I spent enough time at Camp Surf on Imperial Beach in California. If you are surrounded by it, you simply do your best to avoid it, and don't fight it when you can't.
But desert sand is different and much easier to deal with. After being blown in by winds, the desert sand doesn't stick to you. It is finer, softer, lighter, and while dusty, somehow ... cleaner (if that makes any sense at all).
We left out of Bahariyya Oasis, which lies 5-6 hours southwest of Cairo. After another hour or so, we pulled off road into the black and white deserts. It dawned on me, as we were about to camp, that we were in the White desert for Christmas Eve.
I only say it was white because I was in Egypt's White desert looking at these otherworldly rock formations from an ancient prehistoric seabed. And while the tour turned out to be less than I had hoped, the surreal lanscape managed to amaze a jaded guy like me, who used to live in the Grand Canyon and used to visit Sedona, Utah, or the Colorado Rockies every other weekend.
Just take a look.
Everywhere I go, I get guards, random dudes, and all sorts of crazy characters bothering me for money after showing me around somewhere I was perfectly happy going or finding on my own. EVERYONE wants tips, "admission," baksheesh, or some commission. It gets real old. If they really cared about their tourist economy, you'd think they would do something about these types.
Every hotel, hostel, or inn I stay at, someone tries to sell me a "tour" to wherever.
Perhaps its my own falt for having stupid rich westerner, or "moneybags" written all over my forehead, or for being nice, approachable, and polite (been living in Japan too long), but I've never been so accosted in my life. Seriously, you can't be civil without giving them the mistaken impression that they deserve a tip or something.
Nevertheless, with as much traffic as I saw, the Egyptians seem to be doing a decent job preserving the reefs. One thing didn't surprise me though. I was underwater, and another diver pointed out a huge eel that was probably 5 feet long and weighed 40 kg or more. Impressive. He pointed to a nearby reef shark after that. Then he scribbled, "TIPS 3$", on his clipboard.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
My readers are probably getting sick of hearing about the next place Tyler is going to visit. So, my amusing story to keep everyone reading: I farted on the airplane! I was in the center seat, center aisle, and I let a big moldy one rip. People gagged. Babies cried. Stereotypes about ugly (and smelly) Americans were reinforced. (Just kidding).
Thursday I'm going to Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula for some scuba diving and sunshine.
After that, I'm headed off to the Western Desert to look at sand. I'm hoping to end up in Luxor and perhaps see the Nubian desert. We'll see.
I wish I had something funny or amusing to say about Cairo, but the place is very much the way I envisioned it, perhaps even nicer. The city has a horrible reputation for filth and pollution, but it isn't as bad as I had heard it was. Certainly not as bad as Naples, or Cambodia. Only complaint I have so far centers around the primitive internet cafe where the computers don't have USB ports to hook my camera up to. So I guess you'll just have to wait a day or two for pictures.
No, I haven't started a new career as an orator, rather I went to see Kuwait's Grand Mosque.
The large, well funded Grand Mosque of Kuwait is actually a very recent addition to Kuwait City, having been put up in 1987. Its exterior, while ornate, keeps a low profile in Kuwait's city center.
The School organized a tour for teachers who wished to see it, so I went with Jeff, John Fager, Gordon Gabriel, the 6th grade science teacher, Alison Lovell, another rookie at the elementary school, and Geoff Williams, the 8th grade English teacher. May, the school librarian, came along to make sure nobody did anything to embarass the school.
The tour was informative and helpful and surprisingly open. The guide was helpful and polite in answering everyone's questions. They even let me hike up into the pulpit to take pictures posing as a charismatic Imam.
While the exterior of the mosque wasn't all that exciting, the interior was absolutely gorgeous. The main dome showed several striking styles of ornate Arab calligraphy and the main altar was decorated with Quranic verses written in no fewer than 7 different styles of calligraphy. I give full marks for the artisans responsible for the mindblowingly excruciating detail work that must have gone into the decoration and construction of the facility. Excellent detail work involving stucco around the Mosque also impressed me. Sunlight leaking in through the arched windows bounced off the soft blues red tones of the walls to give the whole of the massive interior a warm glow.
Unfortunately, I forgot my own camera, so I had to borrow Jeff Wallick's pictures.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
The AWARE center, an organization promoting Western-Arab relations, hosted the event. Slick, professionally done posters with Zed posing on the tops of Aconcagua, Denali, and Vinson Massif, greeted us at the entrance. Posters of Zed atop each of the Seven Summits of all the continents shamelessly promoting Gillette Mach 3 Razors bespoke of a well funded, professional mountaineer. My expectations grew dramatically.
After being shuffled down to the Center's large Diwaniah room, Zed began with some video clips of him doing some easy rock climbing at some unspecified location. He told the story of how he was introduced to climbing while living in New Jersey and doing some mountaineering around New England. This led him to attempt and successfully climb Denali in Alaska.
Following this, Zed made three attempts to climb Mount Everest. During his second attempt, while descending via the North Col / North Eastern ridge from the Tibetan side, Zed was carried down the mountain with High Altitude Cerebral Edema. After turning back, he apparently made it to one of the lower camps on his own power before being carried down the mountain unconscious in an oxygen chamber. Unfortunately, the details in the story were not fully explained.
Zed was successful on his third attempt and became the first Arab to summit Mt. Everest. He currently resides in Switzerland.
The slideshow was OK. Zed certainly had some great pictures. But his presentation catered more to the amateur audience in the room and less to the mountaineers (was I the only person in the room that had done any climbing?). One of the best things about climbing slide shows like this is for other climbers to ask the famous guy details about the routes, epic story, and challenges faced on an adventure that everyone has already read and heard about. Instead of regular climbers being able to "talk shop" with a pro, Zed spent a good deal of time explaining simple things to amateurs. He talked endlessly about "Why I climb" to everybody, whereas every other slide show I've seen was filled with climbers who understand the motivations all too well.
Needless to say, numerous details about the climb I would have liked to hear didn't get explained. What were the circumstances that led to his Edema? At what point in the climb did he turn back? What were some events that occurred during his third attempt? While I enjoyed the show, it just turned into a whole, "I came, I saw, I climbed," kind of story with few interesting details. There also wasn't much time for him to answer questions or talk about other mountains (the guy went up Denali, Gasherbrum, and some other interesting peaks).
John Fager and I eventually ate the AWARE center's free meal (they are very generous with good food) and met a guy looking to do an around-the-world motorcycle trip.
Saturday, December 08, 2007
1. Went to the first Thanksgiving dinner I've ever been to in three years. It was a small affair in a friend's apartment. It was the only Thanksgiving dinner I've ever eaten without family and it is the only Thanksgiving dinner I've ever been to where Americans were outnumbered at their own holiday feast.
2. I've been doing some serious procrastinating on my upcoming trip to Egypt in a few weeks. This probably isn't a good thing, as the winter tends to be the high season for tourists in Egypt. I'm only really concerned about finding an outfitter to take me to the desert though. We'll see what happens I guess.
3. Been going to my new gym. I'm finding my new job is a lot more draining than my old job and finding the motivation to exersize afterwards is getting harder. Hopefully things will again change after the holiday break.
4. My faith in the political and economic future of my own country, the United States of America, took an ump-teenth turn for the worse this week with talk of subprime mortgage bailout. We know rich corporate fat cats will never have to face the music for their wildly irresponsible investments and loans, but I have a hunch every struggling homeowner who bit off a little more than they could chew (oftentimes just as guilty, but without access to the federal government's influence and pocketbooks) Why not solve drug addiction problems by giving out free heroin to addicts? Its times like these that I'm glad I don't get paid in USD, nor pay taxes to contribute to every pile of excrement the US throws at fans on a nearly daily basis.
5. I went to another Rugby dinner/gala/ event shindig with some teachers again. I've been to two or three of these now (for Rugby groups and the Kuwait Irish Association), and these functions are becoming pretty predictable. All the foreigners get dressed to the nines, go to some hotel convention room, eat an overpriced dinner of passable, but predictably typical cuisine, have a raffle by some annoying MC, and then dance the night away to the same predictable songs they danced to at the last event. Seriously, how many times can you hear that annoying, "Tell Me More" song from Grease in a year and be inspired to dance to it?
Saturday, December 01, 2007
Some of you may or may not know that I'm going to Egypt this year for Christmas and the Winter Holidays. While I will miss all my family and friends, I'm looking forward to this very well deserved (and well needed) vacation. Things on the Agenda include:
1. Unwinding from a whole semester with seventh graders.
2. Scuba Diving in the Red Sea, ostensibly some of the best scuba diving in the world.
3. Taking an 8 day desert safari tour. (Picture Tyler as Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient. Staring off at a sunset over sand dunes with a brooding angst splattered across his pasty sunburned face).
4. Being a total tourist at the Pyramids and the Valley of the Kings.
Usually they are white, but in wintertime, many different colors are worn. I'll have a picture of me in mine soon. I don't look exactly right in mine, but Jeff Wallick on the other hand, could pass for a local if he keeps his mouth shut.
Hopefully nobody will use this against me if I ever run for senate!
I also joined a new Gym. The commute to my old gym, Al-Islah fitness center, required a 15 minute walk down crowded, dirty, smelly streets, ultimately passing over a 12 lane controlled access freeway. This was starting to irritate me.
Another teacher at my school showed me his gym. The new gym lies only a 3 minute walk away, hidden away in a hole in the ground under a 12-floor apartment complex. The new gym is closer, cheaper, cleaner, nicer, and has a whirlpool. The only problem? They pipe in some satellite music video channel and I spend more time watching top 40 and less time pumping iron. I'll get used to it I suppose.