Egypt: Camels, Cars And Lost Conversations

The pyramids at Giza rise out of the desert, defiant, in a surreal environment that is beautiful, hostile and transient all at once. The sands shift as the wind blows as it has done for millennia, and your footsteps — the proof that you were there — disappear almost as soon as you move away.

And yet, the pyramids remain. I stood there in awe at the base of these surreal oddities created so very long ago, with large stone blocks from far away down the Nile. I kept thinking about the incredible effort that went into building each one. It is superhuman, hard to fathom really. Under the fierce July sun it was daunting just walking around one pyramid.  I can’t imagine the prospect of moving even just one of the thousands of blocks that make up the pyramids.

The desert (and the fierce spirit that it demands) is foreign to me. On this Semester At Sea voyage I have been thinking a great deal how environment affects a people. I think about my adopted home San Francisco, with its mild climate and the whimsical assortment of homes built within inches of one another as the colorful streets drape themselves  like rainbow ribbons over the impossible hills and valleys. San Francisco is open, mild, imaginative, liberal (and some will say to a fault) and the opposite of uniform. The opposite of fierce. For me, the Egyptian experience is intricately intertwined with a desert.  It was beautiful but also intense and foreign, all sandy yellow, light blue sky, blinding bright sun-god white that has dominated the culture for thousands of years. I had a few interactions with locals that went from friendly to intense in a short amount of time, and I was disquieted by these interactions. I realized that the Egyptians have an innate fierceness that seems to be drawn from the land.

Changing gears slightly (and please forgive the pun) there is an astonishing car culture emerging in Egypt.  I interviewed professor Maniates, who teaches courses on sustainability for the Egypt/Semester At Sea slideshow. He informed me that in recent years car ownership in Egypt has skyrocketed at a rate of 400%. I found the whole scene to be very Mad Max  in this hot, dusty desert setting. I spent an hour making portraits of salvage shops in Alexandria — a whole area with one shop after another overflowing with car parts. Please check out the ISE slideshow  to hear Professor Maniates:

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