"And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home."
Wendell Berry

Monday, May 30, 2011

King Tut's Will

I’m in Tanzania, finally, and oh man, is it hot here. The monsoons have just ended, so I thought the post-rain would be a bit cooler than at other times of the year, but it’s still scorching. The air is sticky, heady with scent that is car exhaust and good food smashed together, and it feels like you’re breathing underwater. There are people everywhere weaving between the cars and dusty streets: men in tribal dress with sandals and walking sticks; women in smart suits wearing heels and carrying baskets atop their heads; women in loudly colorful scarves or head-to-toe black towing small children; a boy in a Barack Obama t-shirt swaying under three huge wooden fishing nets balanced on his shoulders. Beyonce gyrates through the radio.

When I stepped off the plane at 5am, the sun was just rising, lighting dark grey and turquoise clouds from below with an eerie hot pink and silhouetting the palm trees and frenzied cars. I felt perky with anticipation, but with little sleep and three days of travel, also a bit disoriented upon reaching my hotel. Thankfully, the very helpful manager let me use an unoccupied triple for a few hours of sleep until my room was vacated. Now it’s early afternoon and I’m set up in my own mural-covered room with a big bed and a mosquito net. I’ve also had a fine curry lunch, ventured out to buy an adaptor, booked a ferry ticket to Zanzibar, inquired about safaris (expensive, turns out!) and (re-)purchased malaria prophylactics. It’s amazing how just forcing yourself to go out and get stuff done can instantly make you feel like things are nowhere near as difficult as you might imagine. I’m incredibly excited to be in Africa for the first time and to have an appropriately dramatic end to my round-the-world trip, but a lot has happened since I left Athens on Friday, too…

My stopover in Egypt was unexpected and bizarre—in a good way. I mean, I had expected a layover in Cairo, but I’d also expected there to be a transfer to Dar Es Salaam a few hours after I arrived, which turned out not to be the case “because of the revolution.” Apparently several flights were cancelled months ago, no one was told, and none of those flights were rebooked. Which, while at first seemed incredibly confusing (particularly since my luggage had somehow continued on without me), it meant that Egypt Air put me up in a schmancy hotel and plied me with free food.

Now for a very Dembowski anecdote: Upon checking in, I was given a mysterious key by the 18-year-old boy at the reception, with the awkward explanation of “because you are very beautiful.” Ha! It should be said that though the check-in counter had been a madhouse and I’d been quite smiley (free food! hotel! pyramids!), I am not the type of girl that gets those type of perks. So skeptical, I ventured down a smoke-smelling hallway… and opened the door to paradise. A living room suite! Two huge, flatscreen tvs! A kingsize bed! Two bathrooms (one with both Jacuzzi and steamroom)! All for me! I was jumping up and down and squealing, and left such incoherent messages on both my parents’ and Ad’s phones… And then I got kicked out. …Yep. I totally should’ve known not to push my luck, but, already in bed, I stupidly called down to the reception to ask for the WiFi password. The manager was extremely confused as to why I was staying alone and for free in a suite that apparently hadn’t been checked in, and he and Mr. Suave (who, naturally, totally denied his involvement), showed up at midnight to escort me down the hall like a criminal. It was, all in all, extremely funny. And while I didn’t get to stay in my palace after all, I still got much fancier than I would’ve paid for myself, complete with bathtub. And I ate THIS while watching movies on cable:

On my free day in Cairo (my flight wasn’t until 11pm), I wasn’t really allowed out on my own since I was “in transit” and they’d confiscated my passport at the airport, but I did get to go on a sweet sightseeing expedition arranged by, again, Egypt Air. I spent four hours visiting the Nile, the Pyramids, and the Sphinx. I only expected to get a whiff of the airport in Egypt, and instead I got to see the freaking Pyramids! Looking up at them was puzzling, more than anything. Though there they were in front of me, I still had trouble believing they really existed and weren’t just part of a movie set (my brain was seriously playing through a constant roll of “The Mummy,” the opening scene of “Despicable Me”—maybe they’re blow-up toys, I considered—and that weird Sesame Street movie where Big Bird has to, like, save King Tut or something). It felt kind of like looking up at the Himalayas, only somehow crazier, because someone BUILT them. My hands feel way wussy in comparison.
Do you guys want to know what I learned?* Because, though I hadn’t anticipated this surprise World Wonder trip and didn’t read up beforehand, my guide gave me pop quizzes throughout the tour, so now I’m bursting to share. Okay: There are 114 pyramids in Egypt, 9 in Giza. The three most prominent were built for a king (whose name escapes me), his son, and his grandson, are around 5000 years old, and took around 25 years to build—who wants to bet the slaves didn’t even get a thank you note? The first is the largest at 146 meters high, and is made up of over 2.5 million blocks of limestone, each weighing 25 tons. 25 TONS! Each! The second has a white triangle on top; this is the remains of the white limestone cover installed to make the surface smooth and shiny. The third pyramid’s cover (also almost totally destroyed) was made of red granite, which had to be hauled from 1000 kilometers north down the Nile, and was super expensive. Some kings built their wives and mothers mini pyramids; other wives and mothers apparently didn’t cut it. I went inside the tomb of one of the wives. It was totally creepy and made me feel like Cass McBride, and if I were the least bit claustrophobic, I would have been reduced to please-don’t-bury-me-alive whimpers. To mummify people, you take out the stomach, intestine, lungs, liver, and kidneys and put them in a little box first. The brain is pulled out through the nose (you don’t need that gray BS for your next life!), and the heart stays with the body, so your dead peers can take one look through your rotting zombie flesh and tell if you were a good person and whether or not they should now socialize with you in the afterlife. The Sphinx faces the sun head-on and protects the tombs of the kings with her fierce lion body. Egyptians like the lotus flower (symbol of upper Egypt) as an alternative to Viagra.

Now I’ve got one more day in Dar, and then I head to Zanzibar for a bit. Then, who knows?

*Note: All these tidbits were brought to you by my oft-questionable short-term memory, and from the mouth of my at-times-a-little-sketch guide. So no promises that this is 100% fact.


  1. Wow! What luck to be able to spend even a day in Egypt. It is definitely on my "Bucket List" as a place to visit! It must be rather odd or hard to imagine how really old it really is! Thanks for sharing your experience and for being such a brave soul to take on this solitary journey!

    Be safe and enjoy this treasure!

    Jan Smith

  2. Very lucky you have a chance to visit Egypt. Nice landscape and experience. Hope someday i could have a great adventure like you.