Today I had quite the adventure… I went to visit the pyramids.
First let me talk about Cairo. It is a pretty amazing place. A mass of humanity, something to the tune of 17 million. I suppose it’s like New York City that never sleeps, where the horns never stop, where multitudes of people are constantly milling about everywhere, and in short, a pulsating mass of activity. Not for the faint of heart, but supposedly one of the safest big cities in Africa. They say pickpocketing and getting scammed is common enough, but violent crimes are relatively rare. One thing that has surprised me is the beggars. I’ve seen a lady with a deformed hand, a guy who had serious problems, another guy who appeared to be blind, etc. In America, these types of cases are in hospitals, not lying by the side of the road with their hands out. On another note, the bazaars here are something else: the sensory overload of walking through one is overwhelming: cars, motorbikes, blaring horns, trash, vendors, and the ubiquitous masses of people. It’s like the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on steroids.
Ok, back to the pyramids. Because visiting them is as much an exercise in wading neck deep through commercialization as it is being awed at the site itself, I thought I’d start this post off with a break-down of the cost of my trip today. Maybe it will be helpful to some traveler who stumbles across my blog.
|Can of Coke||5|
|Total US Dollars||$50.66|
To put the cost of 304 EGP in perspective, I talked with an Irish lad the other day who, like me, went by himself to see the pyramids. He spent 250 EGP just on transportation, then another 750 EGP on a camel ride – so it can easily cost more. He told me at the end he was so upset he wasn’t speaking. But Irish are known to have an unusual-sharp temper anyway.
I guarantee you my Irish friend didn’t get to see as much cool stuff as I did. For one thing, I saw the inside of a pyramid many people don’t even know they can visit! More on that later.
But first off, it’s easy to get frustrated in Egypt by how everyone is out to get your money. We take trust for granted in the US, but – not to be too harsh – here trust seems to be a precious rare commodity. Wariness has become the watchword for me. I dislike being suspicious of others, and usually I’m a pretty trusting guy, but I’ve got to the point I don’t trust anyone in Egypt. Even this guy last night who, during his spiel, told me he was an honest Christian. I asked him if he was going to church this Sunday (today) and he said no. He also told me a taxi to the pyramids from the metro would cost 50 pounds when in actuality it costs under 20. So much for honesty.
I’ve only been in the country a week, but I’m already getting savvy to their tricks. Basically, the rule of thumb is that anyone who approaches you to make chitchat or offer help is just trying to make a buck off your ignorance, at the best – or at the worst, an outright con. It’s always a bad idea to stop and look like you’re lost, or to consult a map, or to acknowledge the existence of anyone who wants to talk with you. Sounds rude, but it’s true. I’ve got to where I keep a pair of headphones in my ears, walk quick, and kindly brush aside anybody who wants to talk with me by ignoring them, and if that doesn’t work I give a friendly wave of my hand, a smile, and a polite, “La Shukran” (No Thanks) while continue walking. Even then, some are persistent and will walk along for awhile. In Dahab I’ve had shop owners place themselves up the street from their store and then start walking along with me making idle chit-chat as if they are a fellow tourist, then when we got up to their shop they were like, “Oh, what do you know, here we are at my shop, do please come in!” One guy added the twist, “I have a guest book in my shop that you MUST sign!” No thanks.
The exception to all this shameless baloney is the people who I have approached asking for information. To a man, they have all been genuinely friendly and helpful. So I’m thinking the average Egyptian is indeed a nice chap, it’s just the minority of their entrepreneur minded peers that ruins the overall image.
Ok, on to the story of the pyramids. Just getting there was an adventure. Riding the metro out to the Giza plateau, brushing past all the Pyramid scammers waiting for suckers like me at the metro exit, hailing a taxi from the street, weaving through insane Cairo traffic, having the taxi get a flat tire in the middle of the road, switching to another driver, having that guy make a phone call to his camel buddies to tell them I was coming, stopping to talk with said buddies who insisted I take a camel ride from THEM and me flatly refusing, all that to finally arrive at Giza!
After buying a ticket, I entered the grounds. I was immediately approached by an official looking man asking to see my ticket. He took it and then proceeded to tell me I had to get a camel or horse ride in order to see the pyramids. I told him I just wanted to walk and he said I couldn’t, it was against the rules. He told me he was not lying, he was not affiliated with the stables, he was in fact the Pyramid police.
Of course, this was all bluff and I’d already been tipped off to this particular scam by reading ahead online. I pointed out to this “policeman” the other tourists who were walking around and he said they were only walking in this little overlook area and would not be allowed up to the pyramids unless they paid for a ride. I said I only wanted to walk around in this little area too, would he please give me my ticket back? (which he did) and then I left him as politely as I could, though by the end he was quite angry with me for all my pains to be polite.
The first stop on the grounds was the Sphinx, but in order to get up to it one first has to walk through an aisle of tourist shops about a football field long. No joke, we’re out in the desert and there is this long line of tents hawking wares on both sides. I walked through the aisle fast, keeping my earbuds in and pretending I couldn’t hear any of their begging for me to come look at their stuff.
Finally! The Sphinx! I walked up as close as I thought I could, but then a friendly official man (let’s call him Mustafa) told me my ticket included entrance to get up closer. Wary, I entered, and turns out he was honest. Finally, perhaps someone I could trust?
So I entered this courtyard and joined a tour group to listen in. (Yes, there were other tourists here) Not much interesting to see, so I turned to leave when another man stopped me and told me there was more around the corner. Was he trustworthy? Turns out he was, around the corner was a great view of the Sphinx from up high!
Cool, but then this man noticed my shirt read, “Dahab” on it and proceeded to tell me his wife’s brother lived in Dahab and his name was Mohammad and did I know him? Why yes, of course I’m sure I ran into him. “Then would you please like to buy some of these trinkets I’m selling?” And so it continued…
The Sphinx IS pretty incredible. The Sphinx is buried about halfway below the level of the ground, but they have excavated down to the base. You can see lower on the statue is well-preserved. At the base that used to be far underground you can still see the original paving stones. The face is most eroded, and they have a bunch of contraptions mounted on it to repair or preserve it or something. Makes the Sphinx look like it has chicken pox.
While other tourists snapped an inordinate amount of photos, I sat there admiring it quietly, thinking about the people who built such a monolith in this desert wasteland some 4,500 years before. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always wanted to visit the pyramids and the Sphinx. Egyptology has always held a mysterious fascination with me.
Finally I left the Sphinx. As I was leaving, Mustafa, the helpful guy who had let me in, proffered for free that my ticket also included a look at the catacombs. I was suspicious, but followed him around the corner to an area that at first glance looked cordoned off, but actually wasn’t. Sure enough, there was a large area of tombs cut into the rocks (perhaps ten acres?) at the base of the pyramids that are called the catacombs. There were no tourists in this catacombs area. But this man led me up to the first one and we looked into this cave area where there were original hieroglyphics etched in stone and little cave openings where dead people had been buried. It was pretty amazing.
Of course I knew this guy was going to want money, so I nipped it in the bud and told him I didn’t have much to pay him (which was more or less true, I hadn’t brought tons of cash with me). Anyways, he could tell I wasn’t the average tourist because I had brought nothing with me: no camera, no backpack, no water bottle, nothing (of course I had wallet and passport in my pockets, but nothing visible). The point is, I don’t think I looked that rich. And honestly, Mustafa genuinely seemed interested in just introducing people to more than what they usually see. He told me that was fine if I didn’t have money, I was free to look around for myself, but he would like at least a little dough for what he had shown me so far… I gave him a 20 spot for his trouble (about $3) and he went back to the Sphinx.
Ok, so this catacombs area was about the coolest thing ever. There were totally no tourists here – not that I was in any danger of getting lost as I was right in between two roads, but as long as I stayed down in the cutout rocks nobody bothered me and I could explore to my hearts content, though following the rule to not go in anywhere I didn’t think I could easily get out of. So I wandered all around… through little aisles running ever which way, tunnels going here and there, tombs in little caves, shafts that dropped down into labyrinths below, hieroglyphics everywhere, including sculpted paleo-Egyptians, rock hewn rectangular tombs, etc. It was incredible. But it was still plenty adventurous as there were places that were dark and I had to use my flashlight. It totally felt like Indiana Jones as I blew sandy dust off old rock-hewn box-tombs and examined the mysterious symbols beneath. A common motif was the All-Seeing Eye (found on our $1 bill). Also I saw the sun God Isis – the same god mentioned in the Zietgiest movie I blogged about recently. I’m pretty sure that some of the symbols were etched into gold overlaid on the rock – they were shiny and yellow anyways. Also, in one little room I entered, all the walls and ceiling reflected shiny specks which was pretty.
Before I came I’d read online the pyramids are often an anti-climax for visitors when they realize there isn’t much to see and it’s just an over-commercialized trap. But I found it plenty exciting.
When I had worked my way incognito-like through the catacombs almost all the way up to the base of the pyramids, I was finally routed out by one of the workers who told me I wasn’t allowed in that area (even though I’d been told by Mustafa I was) and to please come back on the road. Obligingly I did, without arguing, seeing as I had already explored pretty much the whole thing. If only I’d had a rope ladder I could have dropped down into some shafts that were about ten feet deep and explored where they turned horizontal to who knows where. Though at one point I did find myself at the bottom of a deep shaft that went up about 40′ feet!
So back on the road, I merged in with a group of Egyptian tourists who were walking up to the Middle pyramid. I was wondering a little when I noticed the only tourists up by the pyramids were Egyptian, not a single white person there. I wondered if perhaps you needed connections to get up that close? I don’t know, anyways, I was able to get right up to the base, though I didn’t climb up, because that’s not allowed. Though one annoying guy told me his dad or grandpa or something was a pyramid climbing fool who could get to the top in seven minutes, and for the right fee I too would be taken to the top. I got rid of that guy.
As I sat at the base of the pyramid looking up in wonderment at its ancient grandeur, a camel guy named Abdul started pestering me. He offered a camel ride starting at 300 and when I informed him I wasn’t interested, he kept coming down. While I sat there continuing to refuse, he went on down to 60 pounds. This was really a good price and since I was pretty dusty and hot and tired and didn’t feel like walking back anyhow, I caved and accepted, against my better judgment.
Taking the camel ride turned out to be a good decision though, even if I paid 145 pounds at the end (through high pressure guilt) and not the initial price agreed upon. Still, it wasn’t a bad price for a an hour long camel ride around the pyramids… I can’t complain. Also, it was nice knowing the money was going directly to a camel guy and not to five middle men (like my taxi driver who was hoping to make a cut off me through his buddies).
Abdul and I rode on the same camel out to the far end of know-where-ville where he showed me six more smaller pyramids and also we got an amazing view of the three big ones. I think he was flabbergasted I didn’t have a camera with me. My reasoning on this issue was there are plenty of pictures of the pyramids already, I wanted to see them for myself. Plus, I was trying to keep as low a tourist profile as possible. That’s why I didn’t bring a backpack either.
We stopped the camel for a break in the dessert and Abdul and myself joined a group of three Egyptian guards sitting around a campfire on top of a sand dune – they put a teapot of water on the fire and boiled up some Egyptian tea for me. Quite nice chaps, and a great view of the pyramids, the desert, and smoggy Cairo in the distance, even if flies were swarming around me. While sitting around, the call to prayer started up in Cairo and we could clearly hear the noise wafting over to us across the desert dunes.
Abdul seemed to be a good egg. The camel was his own that he had bought three years ago. Each day he takes it back to his home to care for it and then rides it out again to the pyramids in the morning. He said a camel costs about 10,000 EGP (about $1500).
Riding back to the Sphinx, Abdul informed me my ticket included entry to one of the smaller pyramids. There is no way I would have known that on my own! Though I was beginning to wonder if the power of my “ticket” was totally at the discretion of whoever I happened to be talking with at the moment.
So we stopped the camel by that pyramid and I went in. There was a steep hallway proceeding downwards at perhaps a 45 degree angle. It went a long ways down, I’m guessing to the center of the pyramid, underneath the peak. The hallway wasn’t tall and you had to duck your head as you clambered down. At the bottom there was a right turn through a passageway into a square-shaped room, and in the center of that room was a mummy-shaped enclave chiseled into the rock. Pretty amazing, though the sarcophagus was long gone. It was even cooler as I was the only one in there. Perched up on a stone shelf about twenty feet over the sarcophagus rock, I popped open a Coca Cola I’d bought up at the top (while still on my camel in fact, I had Abdul ride over to this guy selling pop out of a cooler in the middle of the desert and bought one from him without even dismounting) and wondered if that tomb had ever had a can of Coke popped open in it before? If the mummy were still in there, I bet it would have rolled over.
Coming back to my hostel was taxis and metro in reverse. You wouldn’t believe the traffic here in Cairo. It’s not as bad as Port-au Prince, Haiti, but it’s mighty close. There doesn’t appear to be traffic rules or official lanes. Just a big free for all.
One funny thing that happened yesterday was my driver needed a light for his cigarette, and asked me for one. I didn’t have a lighter with me, so this guy got one from a neighboring car! As he was jostling through traffic, shooting through gaps I didn’t think humanly possible, he also somehow managed to signal to a nearby vehicle that he was in desperate need of a smoke and they passed him a lighter through the window. He lit up and gave the lighter back through the window; all while driving through traffic, I was impressed.
Speaking of traffic, crossing the street here is something else. The right of way goes to traffic, not pedestrians. I usually wait to cross a street until the traffic clears a bit, but I’ve seen others walk straight into a flowing stream of vehicles and just begin dodging between some six lanes of traffic in a hair raising, death-defying stunt. Yesterday, my taxi driver nearly hit several people. One in particular I’ll remember for awhile. He had quite the shocked expression right before he literally leaped backwards out of the way.
Anyways, I’m glad to be back at my hostel relaxing. Travelling can be a lot of work. Thankfully there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken right around the corner.
There are more stories, but I’m getting tired writing them, and I’m sure you’re getting tired reading them.