Once again in Egypt, I awake early. It's my last full day here, which fills me both with sadness and a little bit of relief. I do my minimal morning ablutions (horizontal to out-the-door in 20 minutes or less, what can I say? It's a gift), and go out to wait for my guide and driver, who, for the first time, are not there waiting for me.
Time passes. Half an hour. I inquire politely at the hotel desk, and a call is made. A few minutes later, a call back. It's for me.
"My Queen! I am coming for you!"
Oh. Well, crap.
Also, cleverly played, my friend. Because if you hadn't outright lied to me about not being my guide today, there would be no fucking chance you'd be holding me up right now.
An hour later, Ahamed boils in with his Indiana Jones hat, 90 minutes late, full of compliments and effusive apologies. We're off to the Egyptian Museum.
I was extremely nice to Ahamed concerning his lateness, but mentioned -- at least twice, very clearly -- that I would be wanting to see literally everything that was on display at the Egyptian Museum, which would take probably at least four hours if not longer. I said I hoped this late start would not impact the rest of our Cairo tour. He assured me it would not. Effusively. My Queen would have all the time she needed.
The crowds in front of the museum were, honestly, a little demoralizing. Fortunately, the museum is so huge that there are plenty of places for people to spread out, and it wasn't bad inside, albeit unairconditioned. Once again, I'm giddily bouncing. The chance to ogle the splendors of King Tut's tomb, and say Hello to none other than Rameses II himself, seemed to me to be a fitting way to close out my crazy Egypt adventure.
Oh, they don't allow photos inside the museum. And this time, they really really don't. Here's the one shot I managed to get:
|Horus and Set blessing a pharaoh|
Like yesterday, he began poking at the artifacts. I'm sorry -- touching modern art is one thing. It makes you a douchy idiot, but probably no harm will be done. Smearing your fingers all over a priceless 3,000 year-old artifact? Oh hell no.
Me: Adamed, what are you doing? Don't touch that! (Once again, I have become a Tourist with a Toddler.)
Him: Oh, my Queen, it is okay. (He keeps touching shit wearing this little smirk.)
Me: Ahamed, how many people visit the Egyptian museum in a year?
Him: *some big number*
Me: Well, if every single one of those people touched that scarab, it would be a shapeless lump. The oils and bacteria on your hands aren't good for it either. Frankly, you should kind of know that. Please don't touch the priceless artifacts, okay?
This next fantastic convo happened while looking at a small statuette similar, but not identical to, the one pictured above.
Me: *something something* Thoth.
Him: No, my Queen. It is Horus, as I have told you.
Me: (Teeth clenched through a smile) Thoth is the one with the ibis head, right?
Him: (Actually looks at the damn thing) Oh, my Queen! You are right!
It's a really good thing that all I wanted out of my guide was a male presence.
So we're ever-so-slowly winding our way through the museum. I'm having the time of my life, but Ahamed is close to wigging out and he starts disappearing on me for minutes at a time. At one point, he gets a phone call and I forget the specifics, but somehow it comes out that -- in fact -- our time at the Egyptian Museum needs to be drawing to an end so we can see all of the downtown Cairo sites before they close at 4:30.
I have to pick my jaw up off the floor, Looney Tunes-style. I cannot even tell you how pissed this makes me. Of all the shenanigans I'd had to put up with for the past two days, getting this sprung on me when I had been promised that it wouldn't happen made me want to do violence. (Also, I'm pretty positive he made this up to get me through the museum faster.)
I look at him. And with a soft, gentle smile to soften the words, I say mildly: "Well, I'm not rushing through this, so we will have to figure out the rest of the tour when it happens. I'm not happy about this, Ahamed. I mean, I told you how important the museum is for me. And you've been telling me all morning that it was going to be fine."
I swear on every holy statue in the Egyptian Museum that this is, over the course of two very frustrating days, the only admonishment I would ever give my guide.
I thought yesterday's sulk in Alexandria was bad? Oh ho. Ahamed is shattered. Utterly shattered. He sits on a bench with his hat in his hands and his eyes on the floor. I've effectively lost my male protector, which, let's face it, is pretty much the only thing I'm paying him for. I continue my circuit of the museum alone. Every so often I circle back to find him where I'd left him, and use all of my atrophied child-wrangling skills to get him on his feet again.
All of this drama happens before we even get to the two best parts of the Egyptian Museum, which are the mummies, and the King Tut exhibit. I really didn't want these experiences ruined, so did my best to practice my breathing and positive-thought-projecting.
The two Mummy Rooms are an unforgettable experience. First up is the room that holds wives and high-ranking officials. The mummy once suspected to be Nefertiti is here. (It's now believed that this woman is Queen Tiye, Akhenaten's mother.) The second room is the one that has all the pharaohs. There's really nothing that brings Egypt home than making your way through what is essentially a glass graveyard, looking at the faces of these real people you've read about, seen documentaries about, and whose tombs and temples you might have just visited.
By an immense stroke of good fortune, the guard in this room has a distinctly sleepy look about him, so I decide to risk it, and snap this shot off the hip:
Once, I took a road trip to Philadelphia purely to see one of Tutankhamen's tiny canopic jars. So you can maybe imagine how special this is for me.
After that, there are just a few more rooms to see. Ahamed perks up as it begins to be clear that his museum ordeal is soon to be over.
And before long, we emerge once again against the dazzling Egyptian summer sky, and head off to the Salah al-Din Citadel. The Citadel is truly enormous, and my guidebook assures me that it is full of at least a dozen sites worthy of attention, including several mosques, museums, and other historic goodness. But Ahamed swears to me faithfully that we simply cannot see most of them, that they are not interesting, and most are closed anyway for various reasons. I throw up my hands, literally. There is only so much fighting and protesting I can do. He's better at this than me. At least I managed to win at the museum. You have to pick your battles, after all. Especially when in Egypt.
We do visit the Mosque of Muhammad Ali inside the Citadel.
To be allowed to enter the mosque, I have to wear this, which frankly makes the blue skirt back at the Blue Mosque seem completely reasonable.
Ahamed tells me that this mosque was in fact modeled after the Blue Mosque, but that this one is far more beautiful. I'm afraid I have to disagree. It was quite lovely inside the Muhammed Ali Mosque, but the Blue Mosque is a thing unto itself.
And that turns out to be it, more or less, for the Citadel. I'm pretty disappointed, but know there's not much I can do at this point. For the rest of our Cairo tour, Ahamed takes me downtown and we visit a couple Catholic and Coptic churches.
At this last church, I discretely excuse myself and walk up to sit in the front pew. It so happens that at this very moment when I am wrangling Ahamed in the wilds of Cairo, my sister is planning to give birth to her first child by cesarean section. I'm not religious but I was raised Catholic, and heck, at a time like this it doesn't hurt to ask for a little grace.
I'm sitting quietly, with my head bowed and eyes closed. I haven't been sitting for more than a minute when Ahamed chooses this moment to poke me in the arm and ask what I am doing. Um, I was trying to pray, you doucher.
My "tour of downtown Cairo" is over. I'm wrestling between being honest with Ahamed or just letting things end peacefully, when I have a brainstorm. To this point, the only thing I have bought in Egypt has been my "authentic Nubian necklace" back in Aswan when I was a captive audience on a circling feluca. Not one friend or family member has a present, and this is a problem. But the other problem of my very much not wanting to get harassed or taken advantage of is very much still present as well.
So, I smile. And ask Ahamed the nicest way possible if he wouldn't mind keeping me company for a little while as I visit some shops and kiosks we passed on the way to the churches.
"My Queen! Of course I will stay with you!"
And that's how I end up taking Ahamed shopping with me for an hour. To be fair, he's way more patient with this than he's been with any other thing we have done thus far. He even translates a little, and once or twice offered advice on whether or not I was being presented with a decent deal. I'm happy, because I feel this kind of makes up for him being 90 minutes late and all, and he's happy because he's pretty sure this means I'm not mad at him anymore.
We finish up and walk back to the car, and I prepare to part on good terms. A frank honesty moment, I decide, will have utterly no positive effect whatsoever, and is simply not worth it. Also, I'm not sure where to even start. I start to make my goodbye noises, at which point Ahamed abruptly invites me to have dinner with him, at a "real authentic Egyptian cafe. I think you will love it, my Queen."
My thought process goes something like this over the next two or three seconds. 'You know, why not? He might take me someplace nice, if yesterday's lunch is anything to go by. And I was just planning to sit at the hotel again and order in since I don't want to go out by myself, especially with the social unrest and all.' I admit my judgement was extremely poor here, possibly colored by nostalgic fantasies of Georgia, where such a request would soon be followed by six hours of wine, vodka, and more food (mostly yummy) than you could possibly imagine. And... also probably song and dance after about the first hour, enthusiastically if not exactly expertly performed.
".... Sure," I say. "Why the heck not?"
Egypt is not Georgia.
Ahamed and my driver take me back to my hotel, where I drop off my backpack. When I come back to the lobby, the driver nowhere to be found. Apparently, we are on foot from here on out. This actually comforts me, as any place within walking distance will be infinitely easier to make an escape from than somewhere halfway across the city. Should I need to.
"My Queen, we will go now!"
Ahamed and I set off into the sunset in search of his "authentic restaurant". I begin to have misgivings when he starts to ask people directions. Has he ever even been to this "authentic restaurant which I will love"? But then we arrive.
It's the shabbiest, dive-iest, hole-in-the-wall I can imagine. It's easily 110 degrees inside, and flies swarm. The dilapidated formica tables are dotted with spilled food in various shades of black. I am, of course, the only woman, and not exactly instantly welcomed. There is, natch, no beer. This is... simply the worst restaurant I have ever been to, and I spent seven months in Poti hanging out in dive bars semi-attached to brothels.
We sit. Ahamed goes up to the counter to order for both of us, and in only a few minutes our food arrives. We both have big bowls of plain spaghetti, burnt spaghetti, rice, and lentils. On the side are condiment bottles of tomato sauce and hot sauce, which we apply liberally to give some flavor to the otherwise naked dish, and dig in.
It's a moment of resigned dismay when, from my first bite of this Egyptian delicacy, I can tell, Georgia-trained, that it is going to make me sick. I have roughly 24 hours of travel to look forward to tomorrow. Nothing to do but grit your teeth and plunge on, my friend. In the name of International Relations. I manage to eat about two-thirds of it, which I think counts for polite. It was a sizable portion.
Near the end of the meal, Ahamed breaks off from our meaningless small talk to give me a long, searching look of intent. "Mary. You are a good person."
Whoa. I'm pretty sure this is the first time he's ever called me by my name and not my royal title. I look up, bemused, and remember my manners. "Um, thank you?" I wonder if my interrupted praying moment has anything to do with this.
"If you would allow, I would like very much.... to speak with your father."
This has to be the first time since the Maltaqva "I have gun" incident that I have been rendered truly momentarily speechless. Certainly if I'd had to choose, this would not have been the ending I would have predicted for this day of lateness and shenanigans and pouting and an all-around really liberal interpretation of "guiding". And now -- to receive an offer of marriage, here in this tasteful lover's nest of all places. Maybe he plans to romantically wind a piece of burnt spaghetti around my finger if I say yes.
I move my lips around experimentally for a few seconds. What follows should just about net me the Nobel Prize for diplomacy.
"I'm honored by your offer, Ahamed. But I'm afraid that with my life as it is, now is just not the right time for me to marry."
Ahamed is sad but resigned. To be fair, he's a lot less upset by this than he was back at the museum when I told him I wasn't happy about the tour being cut short, or even when I attempted to change our Alexandria lunch venue yesterday. He gives me his contact info, in case I change my mind. I promise him I will give his request all due consideration, and that I will search for him on Facebook. I am, of course, lying. In the name of International Relations.
We walk back to my hotel. Ahamed starts to get lost and I need to set him straight. Lawd.
And that, friends and lovers, was the Saga of Mary and Ahamed in Egypt. Safely ensconced before sundown, I had my hotel order me some emergency beers, and sat back for an evening of most essential skyping.
Because my nephew was being born.
I can't even tell you how amazing it was to close out my Egypt adventure with seeing this little miracle's face right there on my laptop screen.
And hey, it's not in the same league as giving birth, but I succeeded in giving my family a good laugh with tales of my latest Egyptian misadventure.
So. That was Egypt. The next morning I packed up and headed out, wary of the simmering protest but thank heaven it waited another 24 hours to erupt. The airport was something of... an experience, and I got my very last Baksheesh Shakedown as a uniformed airport guard took hold of my arm in the throng and said "You pay!", and then gestured up to the front of the line, that was really not so much a line but a Lovecraftian teeming mass. Giving it up once more for Egypt, I did indeed pay him, and he took a firmer grip on my arm and propelled me bodily to the front of the security checkpoint, where bags and boxes were being thrown on the belt in magnificent stacks and piles of frenetic confusion. My protector evaporated; I'd made it through. Just one more Egypt story for the books.
Final impressions? I've never, ever been so happy to be anywhere. There's not going to be a trip that comes close to this, not ever again. China, a Mesoamerican backpacking tour... these things will be amazing, but they will not even in the same league as Egypt. The bar has been set. I had wanted to go to Egypt for as long as I could remember, and I'd done it. I'd managed to see and do almost everything I possibly could have wanted to, and I saw and did things I didn't think I could. This trip was a surprise from start to finish, and all in all, I think it went pretty damn well.
I'll continue to dream about seeing the pyramids again, but I also know that chances are very good that this was -- literally -- probably going to be my one and only chance. So I made the most of it, every moment that I could.
I was also, however, pretty damn happy to be going home. Bacon, Mexican food, and a nephew awaited. And life never stops being interesting.
P.S. I did have most critical diarrhea and stomach upset for my flight back however, which included a 14-hour opus from Dubai. Ahamed's parting love-gift, I suppose.