If you were an artist in Egypt, you might be tempted to dispense with shades of gray in your palette. In the dry air, the fierce light of the sun brightly illuminates some aspects, while casting others in dark shadow. There is water, or there is not, with a stark end to greenery at the boundary. There is wealth, sequestered in walled compounds with gardens and fountains, and dire poverty. There are men, dressed mainly in western clothes (or sometimes long robes) and light colors, faces bare, occupying nearly all jobs that deal with the public, and there are women, swathed in loose layers of black from head to toe, faces often covered, some distance removed from interactions with strangers.
There is the ancient past, of wealthy, powerful dynasties that ruled one of the world’s greatest civilizations for thousands of years and confidently believed in its own immortality, and there is the novel, uncertain present, weak, struggling, and tenuous, still in the making.
Maybe this has always been one of the tricks that the desert plays on us. In that crackling light everything stands in contrasts and extremes. Karel and I had been traveling among Buddhists, who believe duality is only an illusion, for two months, but now we were among Arabic-speaking Muslims. This was the part of the world that invented the concept of good and evil and the battle between them (pre-Islam). If I lived here, would I see the world as divided into light and dark, male and female, us and them, right and wrong, black and white?
The reality of Egypt is more complicated than that, of course. We saw women in light colors and western clothes, speaking on cellphones, working in shops, and attending college (but not many). There is a middle class, with cars, and houses, and children going to school. The water of the Nile is vastly underutilized; the boundaries between productive farmland and desert could be pushed much further out from the river.
Karel and I won’t be getting to the bottom of things in Egypt, though. The revolution is fresh, the economy is in a tailspin, the political situation is unsettled, and corruption and abuse of power is rampant. Add to that, the challenges for westerners, and a woman, traveling in a Muslim country, even in the company of her husband. For this trip, we stayed strictly on the tourist trail, in the capable hands of experienced travel agents, guides, and drivers. No hanging out with the locals, homestays, or meandering the streets and backways on our own. As it turned out, our caution was justified.
We arrived in Cairo in the morning after nine hours and five time zones flight from Bangkok. Our tour director, Maged, met us at the airport, whisked us through customs, and soon (considering that we had to drive through Cairo traffic) had us installed in our hotel room with a view of one of the great pyramids of Giza. This was supposed to be a jetlag recovery day, with nothing else planned, but we decided to go out for an optional dinner cruise with entertainment, not because we really wanted to see a belly dancer, but because it would be a way to stay awake until the local bedtime.
In the morning, we were introduced to our guide for the day, Essam. We left Giza and Cairo behind and made our way to Dashur and the Red Pyramid. We immediately learned a striking difference between this part of the world and Indochina: the old Egypt is still right there, almost as soon as you leave the city. We drove past orchards of date palms, mud-brick houses, donkeys laden with heaps of clover or parcels, men in turbans and robes… It almost looked biblical, until a car or a tuk-tuk drove by.
Auto traffic was light, due to a fuel shortage, which added to the illusion that we had stepped into a time warp. Tourism is way down, too, because of the political uncertainty. When we arrived at the Red Pyramid, a famous landmark of great archeological significance, we had the site almost completely to ourselves.
We visited the Stepped Pyramid and the Temple of Zoser next. Then we stopped at a carpet manufacturer, where we were shown how they make those fabulous, hand-knotted rugs.
After lunch we returned to Cairo and ended our day on the Giza Plateau. As we approached the Pyramid of Khufu (the largest), a man galloped close by on a horse. Other horses were running around, some without riders. Vendors descended upon me like a pestilence. I heard people arguing. Close to the base of the pyramid, standing by more horses, I saw a man strike a young boy and start yelling at him. Another man came over and the two men started arguing, while the boy took the opportunity to run away. I spotted another cluster of people, including two policemen, having a heated discussion.
Meanwhile, behind me, Karel was snapping pictures. One of them happened to include a brightly caparisoned camel reposing on the slope up to the pyramid. The owner of the camel saw Karel and demanded payment. Karel would have gladly paid a small fee after a little, friendly negotiating, but the man was rude and demanding and practically accosted Karel, so he just deleted the picture and had to push the man away.
Essam stood near us, nervously protective. “Is it always like this?” I asked. He said that after the revolution, people have a sense that anything goes. They no longer have much respect for law and order, and the police don’t have much power to do anything about it.
The site seemed busy, but there were more vendors than tourists. With business down badly, and no order to the competition for limited dollars, tempers were flaring. We decided not to climb up to the entrance, but veered off to a less congested part of the site. There was one thing I really wanted to accomplish here, and this would be my only chance.
Essam led us to the camel camp and introduced us to a driver he’d dealt with before. We negotiated—hard— for a fair price, and I mounted up for a camel ride.
I’ve read so many books, fiction and nonfiction, where the author or the hero rides a camel. They invariably describe it as terrifying, difficult, uncomfortable, etc., and the camels are described as ill-tempered and fiendish. Well, I just have this to say to all those writers:
You are all a bunch of simpering ninnies. And fraidy-cats, too.
You start with the camel all folded up and low to the ground. Compared to getting on a horse, camels are easy. Yes, they get up one end at a time, but you just lean forward and backward as needed, and hang on, and it’s all over in a minute. If they make strange noises, relax, those are just normal camel sounds, and if it seems like they’re complaining, well, you would too if you had to unfold yourself and get up with a full-grown human on your back. If the camel tries to bite you, it’s probably your own damn fault — stop whatever it is you’re doing to piss him off so much.
My camel, Charlie Brown, was dignified, well-mannered, and a professional in every way. Once we were up, he posed expertly for the camera. Then we set out at a stately pace with our guide holding the lead. In just minutes it felt like we were alone in the desert. I could see scattered groups of riders, but they were far away. We stopped and took more photos with all nine of the pyramids clustered behind us; the guide and I traded headgear (Charlie Brown agreeably knelt down so he could wrap the headscarf properly), then he handed me the rope and I was on my own.
Charlie Brown trotted obligingly whichever way I pointed him. Occasionally he’d look back at me if he questioned my judgment, as if to say “I have a better idea,” and I’d let him pick an easier way down a slope or across a rocky patch. When we came around to the busy side of the pyramids, he disdainfully ignored all the people, animals, cars and commotion as being beneath his notice, and we found his camel driver. That short trip is probably the only time I’ll ever ride a camel, but I wouldn’t have minded a much longer trek on that “ship of the desert.”
The sun was already sinking behind the shoulders of the pyramids, and the site would be closed soon. Karel, Essam, and I scurried over to the Sphinx, the most crowded site we’d seen all day.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to see the most recent large discovery there, the Solar Boat, but I was glad when we left the tense atmosphere and pestering vendors behind and returned to our hotel.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013