"My soul is elsewhere, I'm sure of that. And I intend to end up there." -- Rumi

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Cairo: Giza and Saqqara, and wrangling Mickey Mouse

Okay folks, it's time.  Time for one of the most important blog pieces I have ever written.  We're going to talk about Cairo, and the day I visited the pyramids.

No lie, there are some tears welling up here.  Unashamed.

Why has it taken me so furiously long to write about visiting the pyramids?  I don't know.  Probably because I've simply feared that I will never be able to do the experience justice.  As I've said in past posts, the whole of Egypt was so completely thrilling, so overwhelming, at times frustrating and confusing, but overall so simply amazing that it's difficult to convey all of that chaos into the typed word.  What's even the point after so long?  Well, that should be freaking obvious.  And how can I even remember details from over six months ago?  Well, I have my journal, and hundreds of photographs, and the fact that I have been drafting and re-drafting this post in my head even before I even laid eyes on the blessed things.  No, rest assured.  My memory of this day is crystal clear.

But before all that, there was a slight hiccup in my meticulously-laid travel plans.  I flew from Luxor to Cairo, and there as promised was a dude with a sign waiting to drive me to the hostel.  It turned out his black sedan had no air conditioning, but I grimly and cheerfully bucked up for the hour-long drive through mid-afternoon Cairo traffic.  As we finally neared our destination, I gazed out my open window into what was decidedly a very active and local neighborhood.  We finally drew to a halt in front of a completely nondescript building, and entered, past the three guys in a hallway cubbyhole sitting on a mattress on the floor and watching an antique TV.  And rode up the equally antique elevator, which incidentally had no door.  The hostel itself was the very definition of basic, and instead of the single room I had booked, they put me in an empty quad.  The window overlooked a noisy main street, and the first time I turned on the light in the bathroom, a cockroach ran out of the shower to hide under the toilet.  Um.

I really wish to extend my apologies to these very nice hostel folks for my inability to honor my reservation at this particular establishment.  But the neighborhood combined with the sketchy TV guys, the weird room and the cockroach all combined to just a little more gritty hardcore travel experience than I wanted right just then.  They were extremely kind and understanding, and even let me use their wireless to book a new place.  Thanks again guys.

Only now I was riding by my very own self in a Cairo taxi, armed only with an address written in Arabic.  Naturally the guy couldn't find the place, and I ended up dragging my filthy and exhausted, backpacked self into a five-star hotel to ask for directions.  (Remember this is still the same day I'd gotten up at 5:00 AM for Valley of the Kings!)  They set me straight, and Glory Be, eventually I was finally settled in my very own proper single room with AC and a modern, cockroach-free bathroom.  Woohoo!  The new hotel was in a much quieter neighborhood, on the Nile and in view of Cairo Tower.  This was much better.

Of course I'd given up the tours I'd originally booked when I decided to check out of the old place, but my new hotel was able to book me exactly the same for... only a little more.  Oh well.  I was going to see the pyramids the next morning!!!  I changed out of my dirty and Cairo-inappropriate tank top and capri shorts, and set out to find a hotel-recommended place for dinner.  Naturally, I got lost and street-harassed.  But just as I was thinking of giving up, lo and behold I found it.  Super cute, with a nice mix of tourists and locals.  They gave me a nice table with my back to the wall, and I ordered a simple dinner of hummus, chicken schwarma, and Egyptian beer.  It was a splurge but the portions were enormous, and they actually gave me a to-go box, which would make tomorrow's dinner virtually free.  Good times.  I gratefully made my way back to my hotel and had a quiet night in anticipation of another early morning.

6:00 AM.  Pyramid Day.  My guide and driver met me in my hotel's lobby, and we piled off together.  I was so excited I was literally bouncing, and could barely pay attention to what my guide was saying about the site, most of which I think I already knew.  But then the inevitable Egyptian Shakedown started, and he began, first subtly then insistently, to suggest that we go visit his friend to provides Giza camel rides to tourists.  I told him I did not want a camel ride.  He told me it would change my life and also possibly cure cancer.  And eventually we pull up in front of Rick's Camels R Us, or whatever the place was called, so I could get my camel sales pitch.

Well, fuck a duck.  When you're in Rome Cairo.  I bought a freaking camel ride.  Not only did I buy a camel ride, I paid for the Big Camel Ride, which they assured me would take several hours and would investigate all the hidden nooks of Giza.  That last bit was pretty tempting, but mostly I booked the Big Camel Ride because of this:

Rather than herding you through the gamut of fellow tourists, aggressive schlock sellers, and panhandlers that surround Giza's main entrance, the Big Camel Ride takes you in through the back way, across the desert.  I'm not going to lie, what happened next was the single best moment of my entire life.

There they were.  Rising out of the desert just like every movie image, every dream I'd ever had.  And it was just me, my camel dragger, and my tour guide on a white horse.  Strictly, simply, incredible.  The best thing ever.

Before I go any further, a word about camels.  I am by no means an accomplished rider, but riding a camel is nothing like riding a horse.  For one thing, a camel hump is something like eight feet off the ground.  That means there are a lot of camel legs that need to sort themselves out as the camel goes from sitting to standing.  The first time my camel, whose name was apparently Mickey Mouse, lurched up, I was so taken off guard that I very nearly pitched forward right over Mickey Mouse's head.  My tour guide and camel tour guide both had to grab me.  It made for an adventurous couple of seconds every time Mickey got himself either up or down.

Totally not awkward.
After I finally got down from the camel, my camel tour guide immediately began motoring me though a series of tourist poses that must certainly be mandatory rote learning at Camel Tour Guide School.  Honestly I could have done without them but at this point I was hardly in the mood to complain.

White belly signalling to the aliens up in space
Then, our small caravan of camel, camel dragger (sweet young kid with fake Adidas sandals and bleeding gums), and camel tour guide made our lurching way to the Pyramid of Khafre, which is the middle pyramid with the marble cap.

In true Egypt fashion, my guides tried to counsel me against going inside any of the pyramids.  Um, were they joking???  I insisted on going inside Khafre's pyramid, which was about half the cost of going inside the Great Pyramid, or Pyramid of Khufu.  In hindsight, I really wish I'd ground my heels and insisted that we go to both of them, but oh well.

The entrance down into the pyramid's burial chamber is tiny.  Tiny, and really steep.  You basically have to bend almost double, and inch your way down bracing yourself on wooden beams that are not quite, but almost a ladder.  Having just come from the Valley of the Kings the day before, I was struck by the fact that the walls and chambers here were pretty much completely devoid of writing or ornamentation.  I thought that would change when I reached the actual burial chamber, but no.

Oh, and I've now been inside Khafre's burial chamber.  I've taken a short rest on part of his sarcophagus.

Like the Valley of the Kings, they don't allow cameras inside the pyramids.  I was actually made to give mine to my camel guide.  They didn't take my iPhone, however, and natch when I got to the burial chamber there was a guy stationed there who would take your phone photo for a few EGP.  I paid of course, but they all came out really poorly.  Enormous sad face, but again, oh well.

After about 10 or 15 minutes, I'd seen what there was to see and climbed my steep claustrophobic way out again.  Simply amazing.  Incredible.  Humbling.  Triumphant.  Joyous.  I can't even come up with enough adjectives for this entire morning.  Only that it was, and will remain... the best day of my life.

Topside, my camel guide instructed me to climb up on Khafre's pyramid despite frequent and blatant signs instructing that we not do this.  Well, when in Cairo...

He let me take some more photos, and then it was back up on Mickey!

Great Pyramid of Khufu
Great Pyramid, with some jerk in the way

Mickey and I walked a little ways toward the Sphinx, and then I was cheerfully told "Camel finished!"  Wait, what?  We never even got over to Menkaure's pyramid, let alone the queens' pyramids.  It couldn't have been much over an hour.  Camel finished?  Not exactly what I had been so sincerely promised when I forked over my considerable fee.  Well, once again -- Oh well.  Getting to approach the pyramids from the desert like that, and getting to sit for a minute or two with just me and them and the desert wind, that made it worth it a dozen times over.

On foot now, I went to meet my original guide who was going to take me to the Sphinx.  Here's a surprise -- coming at the Sphinx from the back, I completely missed it at first.  After an hour with the hugeness of the pyramids, my eyes just kind of skipped right over it as part of the desert.  However, I will say that from the front it is slightly more breathtaking.

And that, my dear ones, was the Giza plateau.  Wonderful, amazing, whirlwind morning.  I wish I'd had more time.  I wish I'd had all damn day to wander around these wonders, tracing my fingertips over ancient stones and imagining.  But this is the time I had, and I made the most of every picosecond.

Believe it or not, this day was about to get even more awesome.  Reunited with my original guide, we got back in the car and they took me to lunch at the "authentic" place that was such a damn tourist trap that I was kind of pissed.  Expensive, and built for large groups, my guide and driver left me alone at this huge table where waiters proceeded to bring a multi-course meal that was easily enough for four people.  I hardly want to tarnish this day by nitpicking, but this lunch was seriously awkward.  Yet again, I just felt completely taken advantage of.  At least it was tasty.

This was not even all of the food.  Delish, but could feed a family.
But then I put Awkward Lunch out of my mind, because we were off to something that just might be equally awesome to the Pyramids of Giza.  The Step Pyramid at Saqqara., also known as the Pyramid of Djoser.

This pyramid is amazing for so many reasons.  It was the brainchild of architect Imhotep, whose has garnered almost pop-culture celebutante status thanks to a certain trilogy of movies.  The real Imhotep is even cooler than fiction, and to this day there are scores of unexplored tunnels below this pyramid that some believe lead the way to Imhotep's hidden treasure.  Treasure-hunting aside, the Step Pyramid ushered in the dynasty of great pyramid-building at Giza, and basically changed not only the whole of ancient Egyptian culture in a single stroke, but also laid the first groundwork for modern architecture.

After all of this, pretty much anything else was going to seem slightly lackluster.  We visited Memphis, which was the Ancient Egyptian capital and would have been totally incredible, except absolutely nothing of Memphis remains.  Never one to be deterred by facts or other obstacles, Egyptians have simply relocated several artifacts from various other places to this site, called it Memphis, and set up a ticket booth.  I gotta hand it to you, guys.

Anyway, there was a colossus of Ramses II here, and you know I've got a sweet spot for that guy.

After that, my tour was over, just in time for the truly gloves-off heat of midafternoon.  They drove me back to the hotel, where I remained.  I had a shower, ate my leftovers, and asked the front desk if they could order me some beer.  Tomorrow was going to be a yet ever earlier start.  I was taking a little mini road trip to Alexandria.

There's not much more about this day that I can say.  People hear hyperboles all the time, like "best thing ever!" or "it changed my life!".  It makes those phrases and sentences not have the same meaning they should when actually, they turn out to be true.  This day was the best thing ever.  Heat, awkward lunch, hemorrhaging baksheesh, none of that mattered.  I will never, ever forget this day I had with the Pyramids at Giza and at Saqqara.  It changed my life.

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