Light and Air

Part 7 of the Egypt report. Part 6 here

When I walked out of the airport in Addis Ababa a few years ago, I wasn’t sure I could stay, the air was that bad. When we arrived in Cairo, I was expecting the air to be even worse, but we arrived in the evening and I didn’t immediately gag on the fumes like I did in Addis. In the morning, we peered out the window of our 7th floor room and saw the view was shortened by a heavy veil of smog.

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Pollution is bad in Egypt. The cars have little or no emission controls, people burn trash, and everyone smokes everywhere. The city is covered in a dark dust of solidified pollution. The buildings are grey, no matter what color they are painted. I regretted my choice of a light pink sweater and white shirts….

Buildings aren’t heated in Egypt because it doesn’t get very cold, but it does get cold enough (40F) to make you wish there was heat. We went to a restaurant in Cairo that employed big bowls of burning coal and wood to warm us up. People outside the city had campfires outside their houses.

After a few days, we got out of Cairo and went to the West Bank of Luxor. Things improved quite a bit, but I still felt the heaviness of the Cairo air in my lungs. We went to an outdoor café our last night, and I smoked some sheesha with Slava and Hasan because why not? I already felt like I’d smoked several packs of cigarettes….

At our charming West Bank hotel that overlooked a wheat field, sometimes we could smell the irrigation water. The aroma of water in the desert is one of the sweetest smells around.

During the day, the sun was hard and hot, bright and I felt sorry for Slava with no sunglasses. My hilarious canvas hat was the perfect choice for the trip, although I did pull on the scarf a few times when it was more practical. We wore sunscreen every day on our faces, and with long clothes escaped without any burns.

Our first visit to the Valley of the Kings was on a hot afternoon. There is no plant life there, and the only shade is man-made. It was a sunny & dry wasteland and felt like the surface of the sun, only brighter and with shadows. We walked up to the edge of the tomb area, up a long staircase and across a ravine and down a long passage to the tomb of Tutmosis III, in which a guard had been smoking. Dehumidifiers, there to keep the tomb free of tourist perspiration, combined with the cigarette smoke, made the deep tomb hot and close and uncomfortable.

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note my funny hat

We went back to the Valley a few days later and spent two hours in the tomb of Seti I with our artist friend. The lighting in there is new, LED, and it is better than the usual bare florescent bulb on the floor, but after hours of peering at the paintings, my eyes dried out. Would that I could have cried!

When we visited Dendara, a temple that is much blackened from people living in it for centuries, one room in particular smelled like a fire had been lit in it recently. We decided the smell was probably from a nearby trash fire, but I liked to imagine it was an ancient fire lingering.

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The lighting in the tombs you can visit is often florescent bulbs on the floor, which is not great. Sometimes there is no artificial lighting, so I brought a flashlight, which also came in handy that time I was in an unlit bathroom stall. The new LED lights can be hard on the eyes though. At one of the tombs of the officials, a goofy guide set up some mirrors at the door to help with illumination, but it was the wrong time of day and did nothing; it was more of a performance, really. In this photo, he is holding an old “mirror” as well that he would use inside – it’s a wooden blank with some foil or something on it.

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The hills and monuments on the West Bank are all lit up at night. The first time we saw it we kind of loved it, but the last night we were there we sat with our friend Hasan, looking at the Colossi of Memnon, and he told us how much better it was before all the light pollution obliterated the stars and how special the monuments looked under a full moon. I immediately felt bad about liking the lights the first time around, and imagining how it looked before made me so sorry to not have visited sooner. He’s right – everything is over-illuminated now, unfortunately. I wonder if we will ever return to the under-lit world, one where the moon really means something.

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