Monday, November 10, 2008

From Egypt to India

We ended our 1.5 months in Egypt with an expedition through the White Desert, a strange and mystical portion of the Sahara where the crystal sand gleams like snow.

Anvil- and mushroom-shaped white rocks, as high as 40 feet, jut from the ashen ground. This desert looks like the moon.

The White Sahara Desert is hundreds of miles from civilization, and despite the specks of sand hovering over the horizon, the night sky still burst with stars. We could spot a different shooting star nearly every 15 minutes, sometimes more frequently.

After returning from the White Sahara Desert we had a spare day to spend in Cairo before needing to return to Mohammad’s house in Alexandria, Egypt to retrieve our backpacks. We spent the extra day in Giza, back at the Pyramids.

What’s strange about the Pyramids is that all photos taken of them are only taken from in front, so that the viewer sees the sand around it.

Take a photo from behind the Pyramids, and you’ll see a different story.

The Pyramids and the Sphinx gaze out over an urban cluster just a few meters away. Giza is a “suburb” of Cairo, which holds the dubious distinction of World’s Most Polluted City. Like most developing-world cities, Giza is teeming with honking cars, crowded streets, dogs and vendors on every corner, concrete buildings haphazardly shoved into every modicum of space.

The eyes of the Sphinx, unchanged for 5,000 years, have watched Giza grow from a desert to an urban headache.

We, however, were ready to leave Egypt after not 5,000 years but 5 weeks. We happily boarded an airplane bound for New Delhi, via Abu Dhabi.

We spent a few more days in New Delhi than we had planned, waiting for our luggage, which had chosen to stay in Abu Dhabi. We had been warned that India is a hard country to travel in, but we found it relatively relaxed.

In Cairo, you always have to be on guard, because a boy could run up to you on the street and grab your breasts. This happened to me four times.

Three out of four times, I was surrounded by a large crowd of men (as is ALWAYS the case when walking down the streets of Cairo) and couldn’t identify exactly who it was that did it. I know that it was always a little boy, under the age of 10.

The first time it happened, I thought it might have been an accident. There was a swarm of young boys around me, all reaching out with their hands, and I thought it might have been an accidental brush.

The second time, I felt uncomfortable. It was too firm a grab to be an accident.

The third time, I turned and chased down the entire crowd of young boys that had been following me. They ran away in terror. I don’t think they’d ever see an angry female screaming that she was going to beat them down.

The fourth time, a boy around age 10 who had been sitting by the side of a building stood up, ran to me, grabbed my right breast, and ran away. I was with two friends, one of which is a 6-foot, 2-inch tall man, and he chased the little kid down the block.

Meanwhile, some bystander witness apologized on behalf of Egyptians. The apology was directed not to me, but to my 6’2” friend. In Egypt, it’s customary for men to address only men. If they wanted to ask about me – what’s my name, am I also from America – they’d ask it to the male in the group, as though I wasn’t there.

India, or at least New Delhi, was much different. The only place I was ever grabbed was on my arm, by beggar girls.

The scams in India were more elaborate – people pose as (fake) authority guards and tried to convince us that the train ticket office was closed and they could escort us to an “after-hours” (fake) office – but the Indian touts are lazier. In Egypt, the touts stalk you as you walk from hotel to hotel; they refuse to leave you alone. In India, a loud firm “go away!” (“bhago!”) will get them to go away.

New Delhi was also far less crowded and polluted than Cairo. We all became sick upon entering Cairo; we immediately developed sore throats from breathing the air. Nothing like that happened in Delhi.

Perhaps best of all, India’s packaged products have “fixed pricing.” Anything manufactured in India – a bottle of water, shampoo, toothpaste – has the price printed onto the packaging, so we were assured that the shopkeepers couldn’t charge us triple the actual price.

Of course, they’d still try. I’d buy a box of apple juice and the shopkeeper would say, “85 rupees.” And I’d point to the label and reply, “But it says 70.” And – here’s the great part – the shopkeeper would reply “okay” and charge me 70. In Egypt, that would NEVER happen. A two-hour fight would ensue. (Refer to my earlier story, in which we read the correct prices for falafel printed on the menu, and the restaurant refused to acquiese.)

Once we got our luggage, we departed New Delhi for Rishikesh, the yoga-ashram capital of India. It was a tourist grotto, filled with meditating backpackers, but it was nice to be so close to the source of the Ganges River, where the upstream water is so clean you can touch it. We befriended some Israelis, went to a few yoga classes, took photos in the sand.