I've been wanting to come to Egypt for years. In fact I've had two trips planned that I ended up cancelling because of the frequent political unrest here. I try to visit a new country every year and this year I was determined to make it Egypt. My family, friends, and the US State Department warned me otherwise, but this time I was going.
My guide's name was Moussa. I signed up for a tour of the pyramids and a few other sites through my hostel. I was hoping there would be other kids along for the ride but Gary from South Africa had to duck out, because the night before he "had something dodgy" in his cheese pasta and became sick. Moussa picked me up from my hostel at 8:30 AM and we got to know each other as I would be in this man's Nissan Murano for the next 9 hours.
Moussa is native to Egypt and served in the Egyptian Army during Desert Storm where President Bush "put us in the front". He obviously didn't like that. He worked for a few years for the British Embassy in England where he met Princess Diana but had trouble finding a wife so moved back to Egypt. He was in love with a woman that didn't love him back, so he married her sister. This made us both laugh, but he stays in the marriage for the kids and because of his work patterns he hardly sees them as they live in Alexandria.
Here's an artist's rendition of Moussa and I:
On the way to the city of Giza, Moussa and I stopped for breakfast to pick up a few falafel and aubergine pita sandwiches and some turkish coffee. Giza appears to be an incredibly poor city. There is trash everywhere in the streets, the roads are broken, and many of the buildings are either abandoned or broken.
We stopped at a pen of camels and horses in a plaza and went inside to set out a plan. The english speaking supervisor said that in the morning we would visit the pyramids via camel and at sunset I would come back and ride a horse. Sounds good to me.
Mohammed was my guide with the camels. He spoke English well and learned it entirely by working this job for the past 10 years. I severely underestimated how tall camels are with mine clocking in at probably 7 feet. After getting acquainted with my camel, Ramses, I'm entirely sure he was the inspiration for taun-tauns from the ice planet of Hoth.
After a brief ride through back alleys we entered the gates to the desert sands. It was hot, but not too hot. I tried to focus on the moment but was more focused on trying to not fall off. When I finally settled in I looked to my right and there they were, the pyramids I had longed to see ever since I read the Alchemist.
Mohammed explained that the pyramids were a family. The great pyramid with the cap and the two smaller ones that flanked it were grand papa pyramid, papa pyramid, and son pyramid. And the three smaller ones near it were grand mama pyramid, mama pyramid, and daughter pyramid.
Since I was traveling during shoulder season there weren't very many people on the sands where "there can be at times 3,000 people." I was grateful to have him as a guide as he knew all of the best spots to take a photo and made me pose in funny ways I wouldn't have though of being innately awkward in front of a camera.
We went past fences blocking out tourists and he waved at the pyramid security and they went back to laying under a rock in the shade. I sat on the bottom of the great pyramid. [I have to let that sink in for a second as I type that]
The great pyramid has a cap of marble and the two others had covers of limestone and granite. Each a different material. They're still unsure of how they were built only knowing that the 6 ton stones were transported by the Nile river that used to come up to the Sphinx during flood months. The technology to building the pyramids was forever lost because after completion, the king murdered all of the slaves that built it. Dick move, bro.
At the base of the pyramids lies the Sphinx facing Giza to provide protection. The body is a lion for strength and it has the head of a man for intelligence. Here was my first intro to other tourists on the site and that's where I met Kitty. Kitty was on a tour group for China. She loved Hurghada but wasn't a big fan of Cairo but was looking forward to the shopping when they got back to the city. We bonded by swapping iphones and taking each other's photos knowing that if we handed it to a local, he would expect a tip or we may never see said phone again. Kitty emailed me the photos and asked me to look her up when I get to her home in Ghangzhou.
I can't tell you how many times I've had these tiny 5 minute encounters that led to me meeting a friend later in another part of the world. There's no network like a travelers network.
After the pyramids, Moussa took me to his friends papyrus gallery and I immediately knew what that meant. I should have saw this coming, but the tour was going to be a few stops along the way of sales pitches with I'm sure Moussa getting a commission. This didn't bother me too much though, as I know this is part of custom and part of travel. I watched a brief demonstration of how to make papyrus and looked at a few tacky glow-in-the-dark papyrus paintings "for sexy time". I recognized these prints from the shop at the day before so these must be mass produced somewhere. I politley declined any purchase and we went for lunch.
The restaurant we went to was surely another one of Moussa's friends, but I didn't mind because this place was a gem. The entrance lawn was made up of gawdy abandoned playground furniture and brightly colored wagons. We sat at a table and food was immediatley brought over to us. Moussa declined to join me for lunch so we sat at the table and chatted while I enjoyed a Stella, lamb kebabs, tahini, bhaba ghanouj, and fresh made bread at the kiln near the entrance.
We talked about soccer, his love of Paul Walker from the Fast & Furious movies, and his belief that Egyptian women love foreign men. He then pointed out the owner behind us that had right half of his face burnt off and only had hair on the left side of his head. Moussa whispered that he had a disagreement with a friend and the friend poured acid on him. I appreciate the candor. He says the owner still "gets lots of women though because his money."
I went to the restroom and a child rushed in after me to help assist me with the complicated task of turning on the faucet and pulling my own hand towel (i.e. toilet paper). I gave him an EGP and went on to the rest of the premises to take photos. Another kid saw me and smiled and then came over. He showcased things with his hands and then showed me the monkeys and parrots and then of course, expected a tip.
This is exhausting to me. It's not the money, which is about 17 cents in EGP, but the lack of any pure, non-transactional interactions with other humans. I realize I'm a tourist on a tourist path and that this isn't all Egyptians, but it's psychologically draining to always be on guard and cynical about the people that you meet. It prevents any true connection on both sides.
I packed up the leftovers for dinner and Moussa and I hopped back in his Nissan whipping through Giza while he played mostly arabic music before switching to Celine Dion, Justin Bieber, and the universal favorite of almost every taxi I've been in throughout the world, Michael Jackson. Everybody loves Michael Jackson.
About 30 minutes later we arrived at the pyramids of Dashur. There are actually several pyramids around Egypt. (Don't worry, I didn't know this either). And this one was highly reccommended to go inside because it was free and had more rooms than that of the Great Pyramid.
We passed through the barriers of the Egyptian Antiquties Police and I paid admission to the site. (Guess it wasn't free). There was no one else there. Moussa dropped me off at the base of the pyramid and would be waiting for me outside.
I stared up at the base of the pyramid and saw an elder Egyptian man in an long Islamic (?) robe walking his way up the steps. I noticed this because he had to pull up his robe to take the steps, revealing to me tanned legs and his white Fruit of the Loom underwear. This juxtaposition made me laugh, but it's probably because I've never spent a lot of time wondering what was underneath another man's robes.
I climbed the stops slowly to the middle of the pyramid making sure to look back and take in the desert around me.
This man turned out to be Ali and he took your ticket at the entrance. Either that or he was just a local that sat there and handed you a flashlight and took your photo in exchange for tips.
Now, here's what the entrance looks like in order to get into the pyramid.
It's basically a chute at a 45 degree angle down into dimly lit darkness.
My two immediate thoughts were:
1. I could easily freak out down there and there's only one way out.
2. These thoughts don't serve you because we're going down there anyway so wipe that from your mind and let's do this. Hashtag adventure.
I started my descent hunched over and tried to not think of the movie The Descent. They could have easily made this chute a slide, but I suppose you need those wooden slats to actually get back out.
At the base of the chute I emerged in to a room with a high ceiling of the pyramid shape. I knew I would be but in the dimly lit room but it was here that it hit me: I was the only person inside this 5,000 year old pyramid.
Through another low crawlspace I made it another room and was deeper inside the pyramid.
There's nothing to see inside as everything was either moved to the Egyptian Museum or "stolen" by the British as they put it. All you see is the smooth walls and feel the humidity and smell the musk of a 5,000 year old pyramid.
Inside the second room there were rickety stairs leading to a high chamber. I climbed them slowly until I got to the last room. There was a wooden wall and looking over it, instead of smooth walls you see a pit of boulders where I later found out where the treasure was kept.
I'm a big fan of that documentary, The Mummy with Brendan Fraser, so I made sure not to steal, write my name on the walls, or summon anything from the book of the dead.
I climbed the chute and at the top Ali was waiting for me and he handed me a kleenex for my sweat. We chatted as much as his English would allow and I descended the steps to meet Moussa at a rickety makeshift gazebo.
There I found him sitting down with a Antiquties Police officer and a security guard. He bid me to sit down in the shade between them and they continued their chat.
At this point, it's important to point out that Moussa thought I was a doctor. I told him I work on an ambulance and I forgot that in many countries, Egypt included, the ambulance has a doctor on it. The security guard had questions about his heart and he was using Moussa as a translator to ask me for medical advice. His doctor made him wear a heart monitor for a day but didn't tell him why. It sounded like he had frequent palpitations so I explained what the doctor was concerned about and what he was looking for.
So I'm sitting here in the desert of Egypt giving medical advice explaining EKGs to three Egyptian guys...which is a sentence I never thought I'd say.
He then asked me about viagra and Moussa laughs and says, "see I told you Egyptian man like sex." He asked for alternatives to viagra and I wrote down a few on his security book and he was very grateful, high fiving me and laughing. Even though this interaction was transactional, I didn't mind because it was free and I was helping someone.
We arrived at 4:30 back to the horse pen in Giza and, of course, with just enough time to spare for another sales pitch. Besides papyrus, another major tourist gift is perfume. My second Turkish coffee must have kicked in because I was in a jovial mood which the man fed off of. He brought me into his shop and went through the same patter of where are you from? How long do you stay? Do you like Egypt? I love Americans!
He explained the medicinal properties of these colorful bottles of wonder elixirs and they pretty much cure everything you could possibly have. The scientist in me doubted the validity of that, but it was fun to listen to him speak. His assistant knew his spiel so brought over hot water at appropriate times for his show. She smirked at me as it felt like all three of us knew what he was saying was complete BS. He went through mint, lavender, Ramses for men, Cleopatra for women but I stopped his pitch and asked him about the bottle behind him labeled "flamingo hospitality."
He laughed and pulled it off the shelf and made a show of looking at his assistant and lowering his voice. "This is for right before sex you rub on your balls. It make your [points at crotch] very strong. A week later woman call you because she remember how strong you are." I appreciated his showmanship so bought a small bottle of Ramses for fear that after crawling through an ancient pyramid that I probably smelled like a camel's asshole.
I walked outside and Mohammed was waiting for me and we got on our horses and rode out the pyramids. My horse was named Rambo and was just as fiesty. I've ridden a horse a handful of times in my life and thought I read somewhere that horses, much like dogs, respond to cofidence so I tried to out-alpha this animal as he proved to be a much bumpier ride than a camel.
About 15 years ago they put a fence around the entire property so what you do is ride your horse to a high point in the desert to watch the sunset at the pyramids. We rode for about 30 minutes next to the wall and then threw a small alley of the city while children paid no mind to the giant animals coming through. Mohammed took a 1 minute video of me and Rambo gallopping with the pyramids as a backdrop but I'll spare you that one.
There are rugs and stools set up for tourists to stay and watch the sunset but there were only maybe 10 people up there as it was the off season. I met a man from Canada doing timed exposures with his professional Canon equipment. He was only in town for the day just coming from weeks in West Africa.
I snapped a few photos then put my camera away wanting to take it all in. I knelt down and felt the sand in my hands doing my best to preserve a moment that could never be captured on film.