I have finally seen the pyramids! It’s been one of those things I have known must happen during my life and the opportunity plopped itself into my view in the most obscure way. There would be a tradeshow in Cairo and a couple colleagues had been earmarked to go. I knew immediately I would find a way to manipulate things in just the right way to get my name on that delegates list. And it was easier than I thought. The truth is quite effective as a coercive tool at times. I simply got all excited at the discussion regarding the show, and giddily shouted “I’ve always wanted to see the pyramids!!” with a slightly whiny, slightly pathetic tone.
“Good, then you go – I hate Cairo anyway. It’s dirty and loud and overcrowded”.
And here I am at the first day of the trade show, sitting at our exhibitor stand, bored stiff and itching to get out there into the dusty, bustling mess of Cairo.
It’s my third day here and I’ve managed to squeeze in the full pyramid tour, the fancy 6 story modern shopping mall, great Lebanese food at various venues and the famous Egyptian museum. Today is supposedly the reason for my presence here, but it is the least interesting part by far. There is no comparison. I am biding time through the show, knowing that on Thursday it will be over and I’ll be on the fancy hotel shuttle, weaving recklessly through the neverending streets of Cairo, to be dropped off at an unassuming yet hectic busy intersection which is the entrance to Khan el Khalili - the biggest market in Cairo.
What lingers tangibly in my mind is the surreal trip into back alleys of a Cairo suburb, that led through the desert on a two hours tour of the pyramids. I had subconsciously numbed my pre-expectations of what the trip would be like, to allow the experience to flow. And it did.
We had asked, like so many hundreds of thousands of others, at the hotel’s concierge, “We want to go to the pyramids!”. No problem – they would call us a yellow cab and he would take us there. It would take about an hour to get there. Once the cab arrived we quickly realized it might be an interesting trip – as the driver Ahmed didn’t speak a word of English. In fact he poked his chest, said his name and then managed to get two other words out – “No English.” He wasn’t kidding. Once we arrived we had a quite a time negotiating with him to wait for us while we took the tour…
But the taxi ride itself was magical in a way – we whizzed down a massive highway, past thousands of unfinished apartment blocks that seem to have been half built for decades. The bricks appeared to have been stacked, with no mortar, as if a strong wind could play dominoes with entire neighborhoods, pushing the first one, and leaving them all as massive brick piles shrouded in dust. The only signs of life in all these buildings were brightly coloured clothes, hanging from random balconies.
We came to the Nile on an overpass and Ahmed whizzed on, as if the romanticized Nile of history books was a daily sight, and to him it was. I must say – the Nile of my mind remains misty, with Ramses and his royal entourage floating down it’s banks in gold crusted boats… Today garbage lines the banks and multilane highways snake over it at various intervals through Cairo.
We settled in to the ride, soaking up the speed, the thousands of near misses with trucks, pedestrians and competing taxis, until abruptly Ahmed pulled the steering wheel to the left and entered what looked from the street as a non-penetrable building. Dust flew up, people darted to the sides and we entered what turned out to be an alley. A very narrow alley, that somehow accommodated our car plus old men, children, donkeys and carts on either side. I squeezed my eyes shut until we emerged on the other side, apparently having not crushed or maimed anyone…
It was as if we’d gone through the magical door on the beach… and entered a different Egypt. Where things moved slowly, where time had stood still. The roads were closer to foot paths, unpaved, a fine dusty dirt that made the atmosphere a light brown. It was as if life existed here in sepia. A few street sellers served small crowds of children – some in school uniforms, others shoeless and ashen. All of them beautiful, with black rimmed eyes and spiderlike eyelashes. One seller had hot tea in highball glasses, another was baking fresh pita bread. Old men squinted in small dark doorways. We passed a hand painted sign on one shop, “Desert Storm”. Inside were stables. Horses lined the streets, calmly chewing bunches of dry grass that had been dished up in huge troughs all along the path. Camels loomed over the horses. Some sat, their legs folded like a collapsible chair under their huge bodies. All wore brightly woven saddles. All seemed to be yawning in the dusty sunbaked morning.
Ahmed slowed to the appropriate pace and slid up beside a tiny shop. In hand-painted letters, the sign boastfully claimed “The Official Pyramid Tour Information centre”. Before we had time to contemplate the absurdity that this could be the ‘official’ anything, on a sleepy back alley, the proprietor (official information officer) appeared at the cab door, his huge stomach preceding him in a long gown, distorting the material like a giant hidden egg. He smiled a huge dubious grin, opening the cab door and ushering us into the ‘centre’.
Inside, the cool air was comforting and we sat awaiting the next phase of this bizarre journey. He sat us down on velvet benches and told us he would now show us the pyramid maps, and explain how the tours worked. He leaned on an elaborately carved table with one narrow drawer and slid it open. I almost laughed but then realized he was serious. In the drawer was a generous covering of sand, with nine marble pyramids arranged within. He talked quickly, explaining that the three large ones were for the three kings and the six smaller ones were for their wives. He drew lines in the sand with his pudgy brown fingers, explaining how our guide would take us around each, see the pyramids from a special angle where all nine are visible and we should take photos there. Then he told us there were three tours – big, medium and small. The big would take us around all the pyramids, and even into the tombs, the medium around only six… the small tour was made to sound completely useless and not worth discussing. We chose the medium, figuring once you’ve seen six pyramids, you pretty much know what 7 – 9 will be like. Plus we had Ahmed sitting in his cab, waiting to take us back to the hotel… It turns out this was the wrong answer – our friendly Ali Baba had only one plan for us – and that was the large tour with it’s big price tag. Surprise, surprise. He did make a good point though, which I had to concede, “You are here! How often you come to the pyramids? To Egypt?!”. So we ‘decided’ to take the large tour and once again we were brought out into the light, immersed in the smoky smell of the streets and immediately passed on to our guide. Ali Baba’s last comment after collecting the wads of money into his sticky wet palms – “If your guide make you happy, you also make him happy”. Translation – I’ve taken your money, but you will still pay again at the end to your guide. Hmmm.
Abdul our guide was young, mid twenties, tall slim and fit, and unlike most Arabic looking Egyptians, he had quite a dark complexion. His hair was black, shiny, wavy and quite stylishly combed back. He wore small rectangle glasses – again very modern and stylish. His eyes smiled beneath the glasses, with the long thick eyelashes batting at the glass each time he blinked. He wore a knock off blue Diesel t-shirt and jeans. Right away we felt comfortable – he was good at his job. “Welcome, welcome to Egypt.” Though he had said this a thousand times to a thousand tourists, he had a knack of making you feel special. We accepted the ‘honour’ and carried on. It was decided we would take one camel and one horse. I opted for the camel and was quickly ushered up onto the back of an ugly grouchy looking beast. The horse looked so much more civilized. Then without warning, and amidst Abdul shouting “lean back!”, the massive beast heaved upward in such a jolting motion, I was sure I would be thrown forward over it’s head onto the sand below. The front of the saddle ate my stomach as I was lurched forward and almost screamed. Then the camel unfolded another section of his awkward limbs and I was thrust backward with the same force. My camera, purse and jacket all threatening to leave my frantic grip in different directions. Seconds later I had my composure, the beast had reached a full upright position, and I was stories above the ground. I just could not believe how tall he was!
Abdul held his reigns and we walked along the road slowly for a few paces. Then we were at a very military looking gate, and a few very angry looking uniformed guards stood blocking our path. They talked aggressively with Abdul and then shouted to us “Get down!”. Once again the camel heeded Abdul’s tugs on the reign and just as abruptly he thrust me forward and then back until he was crumpled down to the ground and just about low enough for me to throw one leg over and jump off. Camel riding is not for the faint-hearted nor for those in skirts. Thank God I was wearing jeans. Without explanation we were told to walk the next 50 or so paces, while Abdul settled some bill with the guards, then caught up to us. “Back on the animals, and we head into the desert. Ok?!” Abdul had spoken. Though my instinct was to refuse getting back up on that camel, after observing some other disturbing things about it in the past few minutes, likeit’s hideous deep throated cries and tendency to shit constantly… Abdul laughed, but with authority shoved me back up on the massive saddle. At least I was much more prepared this time for the violent movements of embarkation…
We then left the streets and entered the desert. I instantly remembered the scent, the awe inspiring expanse and silence that the sand emits…that brought me back 20 years to my trip across the Kalahari as a hitchhiker… I took in the serenity and the crisp dry heat and settled into the journey.
Once we had reached deep enough into the desert, Abdul yanked the rope and brought the camel down again. Now the plan was that he and I would ride the camel together. Despite my western reservations about personal space and the fact that this once again took me outside my comfort zone, Abdul jumped aboard with ease. “Now we go fast”. And with that our camel took off, through the thick rolling sand, and I bounced uncontrollably behind Abdul. My tiny backpack slamming up and down behind me, threatening to toss all of its contents, my boobs defying the non-sports bra I was wearing and banging quite embarrassingly against Abdul’s back. I was mortified. However, despite my self-absorbed humiliation, Abdul noticed nothing and we galloped on, my colleague Patrice alone on the graceful brown horse, and me like a flailing idiot behind Abdul on the mad camel.
Everything suddenly melted away – the sun, the heat, the three of us. As we came up one sand dune, there they were in the distance. Epic, majestic – the pyramids. Abdul made a clicking noise and both animals stopped. In the distance various small groups dotted the sand, all facing the same direction. All in awe. We disembarked and snapped endless photos, as if by volumes of images, we could capture the essence of being there in the time and space.
There is something unexplainable when one comes face to face with such grandeur and with history that is at once mysterious and tangible. There are thousands of facts, theories and stories surrounding these pyramids. In fact there is an entire academic discipline dedicated to learning about the ancient Egyptian civilization. Standing in front of the great pyramids made me appreciate the mystery and I found I didn’t want to hear the modern day theories. I let the spectacle before me speak for itself.
We rode on, to get closer, over and around many dunes. At times we galloped, at times we went slowly, taking in the ancient windless expanse of desert. Abdul taught me to lean back on the camel and move with the rhythm. I watched Abdul and indeed his loose body did not bounce frantically. He taught me to loosen my fearful grip on the back of the saddle and ride hands free. I started to enjoy not just the amazing view but the ride, and the experience entirely.
At one point a uniformed guard galloped up beside us on an equally gigantic camel. His face was menacing and he shouted at length. Abdul smiled his infectious smile and answered back at intervals but the guard’s face did not falter. Eventually he grunted and turned back. “What happened? Anything wrong?” I asked Abdul from behind. Over his shoulder he assured me nonchalantly that the guard had only wondered why he didn’t see him in the desert yesterday, and that Abdul had told him he was at home with his children. A boy and a girl. I highly doubted his story. Either Arabic is an extremely aggressive sounding language or that guard had another bone to pick with Abdul.
The next event still has me amazed. We reached what seemed to be a random dune peak and Abdul gave the click for the camel to fold down. We jumped off and once again breathed in the serene magnitude of the nine pyramids. Here was the spot where all nine could be seen in a row. We took photos. I noticed to my left that a tiny crude fire burned, and on it a pitch black burnt tin can. Beside it was a plastic bag. Abdul walked over and peered in the tin can. “water boiled!” he exclaimed and dug into the plastic bag, retrieving a tall clear glass. He set it next to the fire in the sand, again he reached in the bag and found a spoon and a bag of what looked like salt. “Sugar!” he explained at noticing my interest in this ritual and the seemingly random fire pit. He proceeded to fill the glass one quarter with the white powder, pulled his t-shirt away from his body, lifted the steaming black tin from the fire and poured the bubbling water into the glass. Immediately he sipped. He closed his eyes and smiled. He offered his cup to both Patrice and I, while I shook my head I kept wondering how long that fire had been burning? Did he keep that little stash there permanently in an unmarked spot in the desert? How did he know when the water would be boiling? Etc etc… It will remain one of our desert mysteries…
Abdul stood and chatted. He asked for ‘an Egyptian minute’ to explain more about the gods and the pyramids. He also told us about the Cairo of today – where many of the men were ‘bad’, smoking hashish and drinking whiskey. “Abdul – no bad habits!” he assured us. We were in good hands.
We finally approached the pyramids from what appeared to be the ‘back’ – as we observed swarms of tour buses parked in rows beyond the massive stone structures. Abdul encouraged us to climb up – “Up further! I snap photos!” We rested a bit and I noticed the horse stood rubbing his face on the camel’s saddle. They looked so affectionate. I asked about them. “The camel is called Michael.” Michael?! Not Mohammed, Mahmood, Zaid?! “No he is Michael.” Big smile. And the horse? “Well she is a girl. Shalili. She is very good girl. She is the most calm horse. She knows her way. She handles Michael.” So there it was. The animals had been personified for me. I will forever have in my memory Michael the grumpy ugly old camel who resented my awkward mountings and ungratefulness, and his graceful lady friend, the Arabic princess Shalili who later rode me all the way back without fear or hesitation, despite my complete lack of knowledge of horse riding.
Abdul left us to walk around and said he would meet us at the other end with the animals.
We walked the perimeter of one of the pyramids, marveling at the massive size and peering upward at their looming presence with the sun unforgivingly beating down from above. Rounding a corner we approached the onslaught of puffy red faced American tourists in packs, following guides with red flags, roping in their unruly children and rubbing more sun block on their fat necks. From here the pyramids looked looming, crumbling at the bottom, and almost fake, like the constructions of Disney World. I was so happy at that very moment that we had been led astray, into that alley, for the Ali Baba version of pyramid tourism, and not the air-conditioned bus to the base of the pyramids, snacks and cold water onboard, departure time 45 minutes…
We came around the next pyramid and there was Abdul, chatting with some other local guides. He waved and we rejoined our little posse. “Now we see the tombs” said Abdul and we descended quickly down the Valley of the Kings into a deep valley. The noises and obnoxiousness of the tourist mobs faded away quickly behind the wall of dense sand. We had come to the excavation sites, completely off bounds to the public. We came to a loosely roped barbed wire fence. In the distance a tent with guards… “You wait here” said Abdul and he headed off to the tent. No doubt an amount was paid. Abdul had a way of getting us through all sorts of guard posts…
He came back awkwardly smoking a cigarette. “I thought you had no vices!” I accused. “No vices” he assured me. “But smoking! It’s a vice.” “But I don’t smoke so no problem”. He smiled. This was just a cigarette, only one, only today… The guy could get away with murder and maintain that peaceful confidence. On that note we came up to an arched doorway made of stone and buried in the dune. There was a thick barred door across it. He tossed the half smoked cigarette aside, pried back the corner of the bars and said “Get in!”
My Canadian nervousness got the better of me, “But are we allowed?” There was not another tourist in sight. “Of course!” said Abdul. Why did I bother to ask? We climbed inside. The air was so still and the chamber so silent it was impossible to be unaffected. Wow. We looked around. Abdul went into a turbo charged speech about the tomb and where the servants had entered, where the female guards had protected the king etc. I was in awe at all the barely visible hieroglyphics in the stones. These had not been shined and polished like those pieces extracted to the museums. This was the real thing. “Now we go down into the tomb” Abdul stated matter-of-factly. Again I was scared.
He jumped down into the mouth of the underground tomb room. It was a 5 foot drop. He held out his hand and we both made the jump. Then he went further, another step down into a pitch dark low roofed room. The small mouth where we entered was the only source of air and barely a source of light. My claustrophobia betrayed me and I almost bolted but Abdul was having none of it. “You stay, I show you the coffin!”. My curiousity won. He lit a small candle that he’d been carrying in his pocket. There it was – a massive slab of stone, pushed aside with a massive stone box below it. The resting place of an ancient Egyptian king. There we were, posing in front of it, deep underground in an offbounds excavation site, beyond the barbed wire, where not a soul knew our whereabouts and we knew not whether the place would crumble above us…
But alas we emerged, none the worse for wear, apart from dust in our mouths, hair and every other surface/orifice.
When we came out of the tombs the faithful horse stood, calmly bowing her head by the fence, while Michael was nowhere in sight. “Ah Michael!” Abdul shouted into the distance. We followed the direction of his bellow with our eyes and indeed there was Michael, on the path back to town. He stopped, looked up and then waited. Abdul explained that Michael was leading the way, asked us to walk slowly and he’d meet us down around the next curve. We walked a bit further, finding the experiences of the day amazing, and we came to a turn – there indeed was Abdul, smiling his sly smile, with both Michael and Shalili roped at his side. This time Abdul said “you will ride the horse alone. No problem. Horse like car. You want left you pull left, you want right, pull right, you want stop you pull back.” And that was it. I wondered what horseriding lessons were all about if this was the extent of training before being let loose on one’s own with a horse!! However thanks to Shalili and her patience and skill I had nothing to fear, nor any role to play. She galloped and slowed to the tune of Abdul’s clicking noises, and turned left and right by instinct. She had definitely taken this route thousands of times. In no time we were at the threshold between the desert and the road. Abdul instructed Michael and Shalili to stop. “Now,” Abdul explained, sitting above me on Michael’s massive back, with Patrice at his back, “end of tour. Are you happy? Now you need to also make Abdul happy.” The time had come for the second payout. We decided to offer him 100 Egyptian pounds ($20). He looked at the money and laughed. He made no attempt to take it from Patrice. “You know how much this is? Some people offer Euro20 EACH etc. but you can give from your heart. And are you happy?” Clearly he wasn’t going to settle for less than half of the initial offer. We caved in without argument. The last thing I wanted was to ruin this amazing experience, and annoy dear Abdul.
We disembarked and Abdul led us back into the shop we had started at. Or so we thought. It turns out Abdul had led us into the hands of another seller. The room was brightly lit, glass walls with clear bottles full of various coloured liquids surrounded us. “Welcome. Welcome to Egypt.” A beautiful young girl smiled and seated us. This sounded familiar! “What can I get you to drink?” She saw our parched and desperate faces… nothing, we assured her as we could see what was coming. “No problem, it is just my Egyptian hospitality.” At the same time I agreed with her, I knew the drink offer would be retracted the moment we declined the Egyptian perfume speech and subsequent purchase. “I am a doctor of odours”. I love this phrase, especially with her gorgeous accent. Yet still our reply was NO, NO THANKS. Thankfully we were set free immediately. There was Abdul, ready to usher us into our cab, knowing he’d done his best to get his sister/wife/friend/girlfriend some business out of the tourists…
Ahmed, leaning back, relaxing, awaited us. We glanced at our watches and realized we’d been gone in our pyramid world for far over two hours! We felt bad for the driver. We felt elated at the experience. We felt hot and tired and sore from the rides. We were thirsty and grateful and still a bit nervous. Like fish out of water. Like tourists.
For Ahmed and Abdul and Ali Baba it was business as usual. Another day in the Egyptian desert. Another set of naïve tourists taken through the system… We all waved. And waved some more as the car pulled off…
And we rode off through the dust and out the narrow alley… back to the sheltered world of the 5 star hotel….