Egyptian Trash

We went to the pyramids! Greater Cairo, with a population of over 10 million, extends to the edge of the pyramids at Giza. Modern civilization is growing ever nearer these remnants of ancient civilization. There is a huge city, then a town, then a wall, then some desert and the Pyramids and the Sphinx. The site is the biggest tourist attraction in the area, and has been for hundreds of years.

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Surrounding the pyramids and the Sphinx and the town and the city is litter. Plastic bags and plastic water bottles make up the majority of the trash. Tourists get sick from the local water, so we drink the bottled stuff, and drop the empty bottles off our camels into the sand, perhaps accidentally, and nobody is there to pick up after us.

We drove from Giza to the even older pyramids at Saqqara, 45 minutes away. The road goes alongside a canal, and both Slava and I got very sad at the state of it. The desert there is not like the American deserts – there is really NOTHING growing there. It doesn’t really rain, and the Nile is the only reason there is any arable land, any farming, anything. It’s a vein of life in what is otherwise a wasteland.

Yet the canal is not respected. Its banks are piled high with garbage, and parts of it are clogged with plastic detritus. It looks like garbage trucks go there and just dump their cargo on the edge of the water. We saw dogs and cats and birds and people picking through the trash for food and things to sell. Overwhelmed by our first day in Egypt and a bit PMS-ey, I cried a little in the cab.

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At Saqqara, we found a little room attached to the temple that was full of trash that had blown in. Slava snapped a photo for me.

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Back at our hotel the next day, we looked at the rooftop of the Art Nouveaux building across the street and realized there was quite a bit of trash up there – construction materials and broken furniture. We mentioned this to our friend in Cairo, who said all the rooftops look like this.

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At home, I try to pick up plastic bags off the street every day and dispose of them properly. It was impossible to keep up with this in Egypt, although I wanted to.

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As in many countries, in Egypt you put the TP in the trash can, not in the toilet. I never saw bins overflowing – the toilets I visited were pretty clean and there wasn’t paper on the floor, unlike every ladies’ room in America. It helps that sometimes you have to get paper from the attendant, who doesn’t give you much, and that there is an attendant to keep an eye on things.

What, you may wonder, are you supposed to do with those very soiled bits of paper? Well in Egypt, many toilets come equipped with a built-in bidet or hose to make the paper less messy, and it is a good solution. Although this is always a little awkward at first, it makes a lot more sense than flushing it, and it felt weird to flush the paper again when we arrived at the Frankfurt airport en route to Boston.

In Luxor, we stayed at a great hotel on the West Bank. We walked on a dirt road to a nearby temple, and saw a pregnant street dog dumpster diving. A few nights later, we were at a restaurant on that street, and I noted the trash was burning. The restaurant owner’s son said “Yes, they don’t pick up the trash so they burn it. It does great things to the air here, doesn’t it?”

At another temple in Luxor, the path was paved with old bottle caps. I’d say bottle caps, plastic bottles, and plastic bags were the most common types of litter we saw. And, of course, cigarette butts.

We took a trip from Luxor to Qena, on a road that goes through some pretty desolate desert. Some stretches were like those stretches of canal road – mountains of trash being picked over for copper wire and food and whatnot. There were piles of debris from houses that had been demolished by the government because they were built illegally on public land. The piles have been there for years.

The canals in the village near our hotel were also clogged with litter. The man who led us on a camel ride past the canal noted that when he was a kid, not that long ago, the canal was clean and people swam there. Not anymore.

At some sites, people were there to clean up after the tourists, and it was really appreciated by me to not have to look at plastic bags amidst the 5,000 year old art.

If and when we visit Egypt again, I think I will have to bring an empty suitcase with me, just so I can schlep my trash home, or at least the plastic bottles. Another solution may be to use water purification tablets – I’ll have to look into that.

Our friend Tahib led us around some temple grounds where he had worked to restore a clay pot. We were walking on pot sherds – some modern, some Roman, some Pharonic. Of course archaeology is the study of trash – what will the future make of all this plastic?

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