March 4th, 2016 early morning
We sprint down the hall of the hotel, our wheeled bags flipping over as we ricochet around the corners. Moments earlier, we had gotten the message, “The ride to the airport is leaving now,” and we didn’t get to say good bye to our tour friends. We rush from the cab through the terminal, through security, through the gate.
Once on board the flight, I finally take a breath. I shift into the window seat and before long, I feel the weighty lift-off and the familiar clunk of the wheels folding up into the undercarriage of the plane. Nairobi’s national park fades into a distant patch of green. With a five-hour flight to Cairo, my emotions start to creep in: The sadness of no more morning game drives, and the thrill of I am going to see the pyramids! The in-flight director has us somewhere over the Sahara; glancing out the window all I see is sand. Waves and ripples of endless sand.
We exit the plane around 11:15 am Cairo time, an hour behind Nairobi. We head directly to the Air Egypt check-in window to secure out boarding pass for the next leg of our journey. “Your flight back to Toronto leaves at 1:50 am. Be sure to be at your gate no later than 11 pm. Security line ups are long and thorough.” Then he adds “We offer complimentary day rooms to rest and freshen up.” We decline the room and say we want to go to the pyramids and look around the city.
He says, “If you want to leave the airport you will need to get an Egyptian Visa, it is $50 Egyptian pounds. We don’t take any other currency.” He points while talking. ” Take this hallway all the way to the end, Make a left at the centre, past the escalators – the exchange windows are lined along the outside walls on left and right.”
Monique and I fast-walk to pull ahead of a group of people also looking for the exchange windows. A few minutes ago the terminal was very crowded and confusing, now it has dwindled down to just a few stragglers. We find an exchange window but it is closed.
“Damn.” Just down the hall is a florescent dollar sign. We follow it to more exchange windows, but they too are all closed.
“What is going on?” Monique asks in frustration. ” I have no idea,” I reply, anxious and concerned about our precious time in Cairo ticking away.
“Why aren’t they open?” I say aloud to no one particular. Seated on a bench is a man. He is lounged back with his legs stretched out, his feet crossed and his chin resting on his chest. He has several days’ growth of beard, and a wrinkled pair of dress pants he has obviously been wearing for a while. He doesn’t open his eyes or lift his head. but says “They are closed for prayers. They will be back in about forty minutes.”
I move a little closer to him, hoping I can coax a bit more wisdom from the napping man. Sensin my presence, he opens an eye and looks me over. He speaks again, “I do business in Egypt and they do things at their own pace here. Do be patient.” His eye closes and I am dismissed.
We take his advice and to go back to the duty free shop in the centre which has, surprisingly, remained open. It is filled with high-end products: Godiva chocolates, Louis Vuitton wallets, not to mention many pricey spirits. We find this odd considering there is no drinking allowed here.
“All that oil money, I guess,” Monique chuckles, and we keep walking the aisles.
In half an hour we hustle back to get in the lineup at the exchange booth. Our man unlocks the booth and asks “What you need?” I have been the mental money exchanger on this trip. Monique gives me a blank stare and I give her one back. I haven’t brushed up on Egyptian currency rates. I stuff my remaining Kenyan shilling, Euros and and a couple of US dollars through the window toward him. He does some math on a sheet and counts back to me a comparable amount in Egyptian dollars. Yeah right I think, but say “Good enough for me, Thank you.” Monique follows suit. It’s back to the airline booth to purchase our visa and get a stamp in our passports.
At the main exit, I ask the concierge, “Excuse me sir, where can we find a tour company that will take us to the pyramids?” He points us to a travel office. A balding, dark-featured man with a white shirt and blue tie greets us and invites us to take a seat. He whips out a book and presents us with various tours about the city. “We want to see the pyramids, perhaps get a look at the Nile river, and if there’s time, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities.”
He checks his watch – it is already after 1 pm. He says “It will take you over an hour to get to the pyramids, then two hours around the complex.” He pauses. “Then another hour or more to get back depending on rush-hour traffic. The museum closes at 4:30. You wouldn’t have time to see both.” We cross the museum off our list. That narrows our choices down to a tour of the city, including the pyramids, an artist’s shop, and a stop at a kebab shop for a meal included in the price. ” Sold.” We hand over the cash and we are escorted out the doors into the parking lot to meet our cab driver/ tour guide. He was introduced to us but forgive me, I can’t say it and I sure can’t spell it. From here on in we are addressed as Kelly-Mo.
He stashes our bags in the trunk and with the briefest of looks over his shoulder we merge into the chaos of traffic, zinging in and out of lanes, tooting horns, and series of strongly applied brakes that throw us forward in several near collisions. Many of the cars have dents and scrapes. “Tough place to buy car insurance I guess?” Our driver laughs.
Somewhere along the route we pick up a man who sits in the front passenger seat and for the next twenty minutes the two of them have a conversation in Arabic. Monique and I look at each other thinking the same thing; Who is this frigging guy? The uneasy feeling we had in the cab during our drive through Kibera hovers close to the surface. We stay alert. Please read What Kenya Did To Me,- Kibera Part 1.
It is a slow drive. The traffic remains bumper-to-bumper. Our front seat passenger opens his door and jumps out at a street corner, not even waiting for the car to stop. At this point our driver remembers we are in the back and starts to tell us about how the tourists have not returned since the revolt. “It is lean times, Kelly-mo,” is his way of saying he picked up an extra fare on our paid tour.
The place to dump your garbage appears to be anywhere along the road. I expected Nairobi to be trashed and filthy, but not Cairo. Somehow I expected a more cosmopolitan city. I was sadly disappointed. I take pictures out the window. (I forgot to change my ISOs from the evening before, sorry for the over exposure.)
Most of the buildings are made of cement. Re-bar juts out of the masonry structures. I can’t figure out whether they are unfinished or partially demolished.
We close in on Giza and the tops of the pyramids come into view. They are basically in the middle of the city – I had imagined them being far out on the edge of the desert. I have been reading too many dated references about this place.
Mr. Driver parks the car at the curb and walks us to the ticket booth, but stops short and starts to talk. He regales us with the history of Egypt from the beginning. He speaks of Pharaoh Khufu and the family dynasty. The quarry in Aswan where the building materials came from. Theories and hypotheses of how they were built, and on and on.
He is a very passionate man, accentuating his words and flailing his hands like he wants to choke someone. The veins in his neck start to show. Such a change from the placid nature of the Kenyans we’d been spending time with. He speaks to us for nearly ten minutes, and when he finally pauses for a breath, I stop him. “Mr…. we would like to see them before the place closes.”
“OK, OK, Kelly-Mo, you tourists all the same, you just want to see the pyramids.” I appease him somewhat by saying, “I did enjoy ancient history in high school.”
We get the tickets and enter the gate. He says we should get a camel ride or a horse and carriage to take us around. We decline. He mumbles, “You don’t want to spend any money in my country.” I think he was just mad we actually wanted him to guide us around and he can’t go get more fares. We walk to the base of the great pyramid of Giza, also known as Khufu’s Pyramid, and look up. Each block is enormous and upper ones appear ready to tumble down. He takes photos of us posing, then we climb up a few levels.
All around us tourists cling to the sides of the chiseled blocks, jumping from one to the the other, making their way across and upward. I am extremely glad we have this opportunity, but I am also surprised. So many ancient monuments are closed off or have limited access. Stonehenge allows visitors only to walk the path circling the stones, and Macchu Picchu has limited the number of daily visitors.
We head into the Necropolis, a roofless stone building with worn, undulating floors, where the dead were kept and prepared for burial. I feel quite privileged to walk the area of the wabet, where the ancient Egyptian embalmers performed their sacred rituals on the pharaohs three millennia ago.
A solid building. The blocks are so tightly fitted together is truly is a wonder how it was built. Mr. Guide gives us some gory details: “They had a hook they would use to pull the brain out of the skull cavity through the nose” – apparently an important part of preserving of the bodies. Square pockets in the floor were where the dried bodies were positioned. “The priest required 70 days to complete the mummification process.”
Mr. Driver brings the car around for us. There is a road to the top and a look-off. We stand on the retaining wall and take fun photos as if touching the top of the pyramids,
There is a 360-degree view of the three pyramids, the city beyond and outward to the desert.
The smallest of the three is the Pyramid of Mycerinus. The cemetery at the back of the pyramid is for the queens and daughters of the pharaoh.
Aligned at the back are shopkeepers peddling their keychains, hats, with “Cairo” and miniature heads of the Sphinx. Horse and buggies ply the roadway bring tourists to the top for a view.
Camels are available too. Many of them standing, some resting with their legs folded under them, and one that is laid flat, reminiscent of this line from The Alchemist:
“Tomorrow, sell our camels and buy a horse. Camels are traitorous: they walk thousand of paces and never seem to tire. Then suddenly, they kneel and die. But horses tire bit by bit. You always know how much you can ask of them, and when it is that they are about to die?”- Paulo Coelho
Our grand finale is the Sphinx. Our driver leaves us to explore it ourselves. We take pictures of each other and something bizarre starts to happen.
Young men keep coming up and asking Monique if she will pose with them for a photos. Then it starts happening to me. At first it is flattering, then it gets ridiculous. Men just walk up, show us their cameras and point at one or both us. We start to wonder if we are dressed inappropriately. We both have long pants and short sleeve shirts on but we didn’t read anything about needing head covers. Monique thinks it must be her blonde hair, I think it is because we have no chaperone. Whatever it is, it is time to move on before we get accosted. We find our driver and tell him we are ready to leave.
We drive around the city. Many of the building are two to five storeys. Most look unfinished. Few have glass windows; many have blankets covering the entrances. Laundry hangs from railings and is strewn across what ever it can be hung from.
We drive by the Nile and the bridge over it, but traffic is too bad to get a decent photo. We stop at the kebab shop and our driver leaves us in the car while he goes to get us our meal. We order falafels and watch the action on the street.
My falafel is excellent. We head to a shop owned by famous local artist Abo Youseef. He serves us tea and tells us how he starts by taking papyrus reeds that grow along the Nile, and, staying true to the traditional methods, he creates a form of paper which he uses as his base to paint traditional Egyptian-themed art.
I am a minimalist and usually only take home photos, but art is my weakness and I name my price on a piece I admire and he accepts it. He wraps it up in a cylinder stamped with his trademark, his name and print number visible for customs. (I have not removed it from its packaging yet.)
Nefertem He was the god of the flower of eternity…. and “Hathours- Her name means ” the house of Horus” She is one of the famous Egyptian goddess…”
It is a long drive back to the airport. Mr. Driver shows us this neighborhood and that neighborhood, they all just look decrepit and crumbling. Satisfied we have seen enough, we ask him to take us back to the airport. We give him a generous tip and send him off just past 8 pm. Three sets of security checkpoints and a hour and a half later, we get to our gate. We are both physically drained from our punishing pace of the day. We could have taken the hotel room and not gone, but I leave you with one more line from The Alchemist that sums it up:
“He heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you wouldn’t have seen the pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
Happy travels from from Maritime Mac.
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