Chasing the Pharaohs – Egypt, Africa
The automatic doors of the airport terminal opened right before I stepped into the sizzling heat of the Egyptian afternoon. I pushed my way through touts and fat
Arab men trying to shuffle me into a taxi. I looked for a bus going into Cairo. There were many yet most were in a state of complete dilapidation. Humanity
was poring out the windows of the coaches headed for the city center carrying boxes, children, men and women in such close proximity, it would leave one to believe the drivers were going for a world record. This was all about as unattractive to an accustomed European traveler as pail, furry obesity
is on a day at the beach. I had only stepped out the door of the airport; Egypt was already chaotically adventurous and frustratingly fantastic.
Do you want to add Cairo to your RTW trip itinerary?
I spent 2 hours at the airport simply trying to get into the city (without being taken advantage of by a taxi driver.) I sat alone in a city bus as
the driver made the last few turns before the Nile came into view. I found out that those people I saw crammed like cattle into the white, dent ritteld
rundown buses I had first seen at the airport paid 20 cents to get into the city; I had pulled out the big bucks and paid $1.50 for a vehicle that doubled as my own
personal stretch limo to the city.
The driver stopped and let me off in the center of Cairo like a child throwing a dead bug onto an ant hill. When my foot touched the grody pavement, I was surrounded by guys trying to sell me handbags and sunglasses. I politely told them to "get out of my
face". I crossed the street to take in my first view of the mighty and legendary Nile River.
Once I had crossed the four lanes of traffic, nearly run down by seven or eight black taxis, I leaned over the railing along the embankment and
looked out onto the murky and polluted waters of the Nile, as a tiered and bitter sun began its long descent into the evening horizon. A cast iron brown and featherless
sky laid a blanket over the city with only a vague patch of hazy blue at its apex. The excessive noise from the traffic and city dwellers echoed over the water, the advertisements loomed in the sky on billboards suspended by wire and steel: KFC, Nokia phones, and of course, Coca-Cola.
Shoeless children rummaged thought trash at the river side and smartly dressed tourist police paraded up and down the sidewalk smoking cigarettes with a
locked and loaded AK-47 resting on their shoulders. This was Egypt – a land of adventure and
wonder. For me it was a step in the opposite direction of normality – the birthplace of the modern tourist in the footsteps of Alexander, Napoleon, and Victoria – the start of my great crusade across the Middle East.
Soon after arriving in Cairo, I met a few Americans likewise wandering the city at night watching the bustle of the markets and men howling in discussion over tea,
like wolfs on a full moon. I met Tony and his girlfriend Jess. Tony had the body of a motley crew roady. He had a thick beard and long hair and seemed to be
somewhere in his late 20s; his girlfriend Jess, a smart and funny 17-year-old drop out had run away from home on the previous Sunday. The first time I ran away
from home I didn’t make it past the 7-Eleven down the street; this girl reached Egypt in less than a week. I was impressed. I guess she really meant it
when she packed her bags and stepped out the door. Jess and Tony had a calm demeanor and a ready-for-anything way of looking at the world. I thought it would be nice to
hang out together, for company. We had checked into a cheap hotel in the city center. Cairo was a textbook example of
a hell hole; the roof of my hotel was a sea of dirt and satellite dishes.
The first thing you see in Cairo are the Pyramids of Giza. Jess and Tony were more than happy to join me. We walked a few meters
passed the doors of the inn to an overpass where there was a maze of vans and mini buses headed for every part of Cairo and its outlying areas. Young boys wandered around selling baskets of fruit and water bottles, while doing laps around passengers waiting for their van to leave. Quickly you
become accustomed to never being alone in the Arab world. If you are European, you are the object of money. You are more recognized as a walking stack of bejermans
than a human being on holiday. Several men with pails of black water from washing the mini-bus jumped at the chance to make some money for the thankless task of pointing his finger to the van going to Giza, clearly labeled and easy to find.
Herded into a mini bus the three of us were on our way to Giza (the slum like suburb of Cairo next to the pyramids.) A mini bus is the preferred local form of
transportation, made to hold 8 people comfortably, 18 miserably. It’s cheap, it’s fast (often too fast) and it’s a good way to become
intimate with the populous of the city. Inevitably, at some point, someone will be sitting on your lap. Fortunately, we met a helpful Egyptian man named Ali Abule.
Ali suggested we see his cousin, a stable owner in Giza. As we neared the edge of the desert, I caught my first glimpse of the pyramid. Seeing the top of the wonder made my heart skip a beat. It was huge, no kidding.
Ali wanted us to enjoy his country, of which he was very proud. You see, if you simply arrive at the gates of the pyramids in a
tourist bus, or by cab, there are more than enough guys running around with donkeys, camels and grim looking horses. Countless German, American and British tourists catch a short ride on a camel, horse, or donkey – for an absurd amount of money. It’s all for a photo opportunity. If you don’t get to "ride the animal", you can abolish
the idea of galloping across the desert sands like Laurence of Arabia. If your idea of a "trot" is being led by a skinny child holding a rope for ten yards, then
you won’t be disappointed. This was not something we wanted to do; we spoke with Ali’s cousin to get more of a classical experance. I was
happy to see the stables were decent, clean, with well fed animals that had space to move. Ali bargained with his cousin (for 20
minutes in perfect Arab fashion) to let us take out his horses. Upon settling on a fee, we agreed to use horses.
We mounted up. Trotting slowly out of the slum, we crossed a dried canal and made our way into the heavy sands of the desert. The sands rose and fell over mounds of earth low enough for us to see the tops of the pyramids in the distance. Our horses carried us up a small ridge where I
looked out to see the last of the grand wonders of the ancient world – the crypts of the pharaoh – a mountain of limestone made by man 6,000 years ago, structures
that stood in place for most of the time humanity has recorded itself. a place where Alexander The Great, Julius Caser and Napoleon traveled (and fought) to see something that stood long before them.
We dismounted to explore the site on our own. The base of the pyramids was more entertaining than the famed structures themselves. There were barking calls from vendors selling camel rides and Pepsi. Egyptian men took photos of people with
Polaroid cameras then sold them before the tourists had a chance to walk away. Legions of retirees in Bermuda shorts and heavy sunglasses stood listening to tour guides
holding up small flags, umbrellas and balloons so people wouldn’t get confused and walk over to other tour groups.
We managed to climb up part of the pyramid, but were forced to come down by request of the police. We took the long way round, checking out the ruins of Egypt’s lost past, taking picture to show our friends back home. We rounded the sphinx and back to Giza.
We rode for an hour to the stables where Ali’s cousin Abdu, greeted us and took us to the roof top of the stables where I could see the pyramids again, through the
palms and roof tops of the city. We had lunch and were served tea; we talked about life in Cairo and the history of the Arabs of Egypt.
It had already been an outstanding day, but there was plenty more daylight left, so we hatched a plan to get a taxi for the Saqqara Pyramid, south of Cairo.
This is better known as the "step" pyramid. Our driver thought it was faster to take the back streets of Giza and Cairo. I was in the
front; Jess and Tony stretched out in the back. The paved roads turned to dust, edges were lined with mounds of trash and filth. Children played on piles of
waste, women washed clothes in green water, men walked with carts and goods looking to sell something.
Buildings were flimsy and covered with dirt. I
had seen cardboard boxes that looked to be more stable than these people’s homes. Families road on carts pulled by donkeys, mothers covered their faces with burkas
when we passed as their children waved and greeted us in excitement. I couldn’t decide if I felt like I had just gone back in time, or been
blasted into the future of a failed civilization. Thick stone walls stretched around miles of orange farms where rich men lived in luxury, overlooking the despair
of their workers and their families existing in outstanding poverty and despicable squalor.
Our taxi driver who had gone through about half a pack of cigarettes in 15 minutes, turned up a newly paved road winding back into the desert. We paid him
to sit and wait for us to return before we navigated the ten or twelve tour buses parked in a fresh parking lot. All we could see was a thick line of tourists
walking around the ruins. We stepped carefully, pressed against each other like the
front row of a Billy Ray Sirus Concert .
Jess, Tony and I were not interested in waiting in a line; we ducked under a rope. We saw smaller pyramids free of tourists; we climbed up the sides like it was a big jungle gym. Ancient buildings half buried in sand were
unspoiled, ours alone. Hieroglyphs lined the walls. In one building we found a hole that went down 25 feet, passageway
to the burial rooms deep underground. Without any ropes we were not able to climb down, unfortunately. We continued to stare into the hole trying to think of a way down. Our brainstorming came to an arrest when we heard a voice behind us.
“Excuse me, you are not allowed to be in there! That’s off limits. You need to stop and get back over the ropes, this is a sensitive area," said
a heavy American tour guide, momentarily separated from her flock. She had snuck up on a dim path designated by rocks in the sand.
I looked at Tony, and then at the woman, “Who are you exactly, and what are you doing here?" I retorted.
Tony began to dig around in the sand picking up rocks to look like they were studying and taking samples. Jess slipped a notebook out from her backpack
and started scribbling.
"Oh, are you students?" she assumed. I decided to act on her presumption "Yes, yes we are. We are students of uh… Washington University on an
archeology study. Everything is under control. Now, if you don’t mind, we need you to stay on the path at all times," I said, winking at
Tony and Jess.
"Wait. I don’t remember Washington having a big archeology program," she said with a slyness "and where is your professor?"
"We get that all the time, we are from the DC area, the other Washington, that’s why.”
“I see” the woman said. “Well where is your professor?”
“He’s down in that big hole doing some important work. We can pull him up the rope if you want," I said. Either she believed us or she quit caring and took off. We found it all very funny.
Walking to the small pyramid of Unas, we had the bright idea to somehow get into the chamber. This was a shorter pyramid that looked as if tourists hadn’t
spoiled it like all the others. Thirty meters from the base of the tomb was a causeway that led down into the sand to a rock wall, where one could squeeze into to get inside. Jess and Tony took watch while I crawled under the barbed wire.
I pulled out a flashligh and slipped
into the tomb. The air was cold, my every step echoed up and down the walls of the subterranean layer. Inside the pyramid there were several rooms that led
in different directions. The ground was littered with guano (bat shit). The narrow walkway got smaller; the guano piled up. I pushed on a few more yards
past several rooms as everything was immersed in complete darkness. Moving slowly around a corner, I shined my flashlight down a long hallway reaching
to the underground of the pyramid.
I froze as I looked at the wall covered with bats. Every inch of the ceiling was taken up by a bat. The light revealed
thick clusters for a quick moment, before they began to flutter and screech when I dropped the light. I kept still until the flying creatures went back to their
perches. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t get myself to go deeper into the pyramid. mind you I was on my own, and under an Egyptian pyramid, to boot.
After climbing the pyramid, we met our driver and went back to the stables, where Abdu, the owner, greeted us. We had tea, talked
on the roof top. Abdu suggested we take his camels out to the desert and watch the sun set in the silence of the desert. We mounted up, this time
all the grace and sophistication of a horse had been replaced by a lumbering camel. A camel is like a fat drunken guy at a football game – disgusting,
rude and stupid. He has nothing intelligent to say, he ruins every peaceful moment with flatulence and spitting. He never wants to get any work done and he has
a pasty balcony covered in hair hanging over his belt. Despite my plea to ride another horse, Jess
and Tony convinced me to ride a camel.
In the last hour of daylight we went into the desolate tract towards the Giza plateau. I sat back as the camel slowly lumbered along. The suppressing heat of the day was leavening as a cool breeze brushed my face. I watched the sun
drop behind the sands of the Sahara. The fading light silhouetted the pyramids in the distance; another day came to a close. The city lights of Cairo began to flicker on; the volume of noise clouded any serenity of the desert.
For one quick moment, the sounds of the city dissipated and the city fell silent. Shortly after, we heard the call to prayer being repeated across
the city over mega phones from the towers of the mosques. The words of the Koran echoed over the barren and chilly desert. The words and teachings of Mohammed
and the Koran brought a moment of peace and unity to the chaos of Cairo before returning to the chaotic habitat of nightmarish traffic.
It was getting dark fast; our guide suggested we hurry to the stables. Besides, it was time to meet Ali for dinner. Unlike a horse, you can’t get into the rhythm of a camel, feels like you are being bounced randomly, having your ass smacked repeatedly with a baseball bat. As my camel
got into a full run, I tried to hang on, but I felt more like a bull rider than a passenger. The camel tossed me face first onto the sand. I looked like one
of those guys in the old Westerns who is shot and rolls off the back of his horse. Camels are a lot higher than horses, though. I fell face first into the sand, brushed off the sand. Other than my pride, I was fine. At that point I decided no more camels. Did you ever see Indiana Jones on a camel?
Ali met us at the stables, walked us to his home. The dark streets of Giza were full of men moving around: horses and camels eating hay, young boys
shepherding goats. Ali led us through the busy streets while men watched us from inside cafés as they smoked their water pipes, listening to loud music
blaring from old and dusty speakers. Ali took us into an ally filled with children and led us up a flight of stairs where we entered his apartment.
Inside we were introduced to his family and ate dinner with him.
The Egyptian man hosted a fabulous flat. rooms of decorative rugs and hand crafted furniture from Saudi
Arabia. We met his 7 little girls. He showed us the rooftop of his apartment. His home was no less then 300 meters from the gate
of the pyramids.
Ali pulled out a cigarette and began to smoke. We looked over the balcony towards the illuminated pyramids, a few hundred meters away. Every night a sound and light show is presented in 5 languages. Each of the massive pyramids was lit up in green, blue and red, as lasers told the epic story of
the men who once rested there. We watched while the colors rose and fell to the music of the show. It was beautiful and relaxing, a perfect end to what may
have been one of the busiest days of my life. And it was only the first day.
Read Mohammed of the Mountain for the first part of this story.