He woke me at 7:16. I dressed, went downstairs to take out money. The buildings were all about eight stories high and covered in a layer of grime. This was Africa. I felt nervous, not really wanting to be seen. The few people on the street looked at me with wonder. There was tension everywhere, not directed at me, just in the morning bustling of a post-revolutionary city.
I took out 4000 pounds, knowing I could convert it to Euros at a good deal. I went back in and took the elevator to the top floor accidentally, not knowing how to get it back down again. The roof of the building was quiet and there were empty rooms with broken glass windows. I wondered who lived here. A man from the hostel appeared from behind a door to take the elevator down a floor with me. I waited a few minutes for the driver.
“Be careful with your money,” the hostel proprietor said, after I paid him for the room. He walked downstairs with me. I would miss him. My driver was a hefty man who spoke decent English. I liked him, perhaps because of his broad hands, perhaps because he drove a new Hyundai. I sat in the car, introduced myself, happy again that I could speak English, and we were off. The city was fairly dirty, or perhaps it was clouded in a haze of dust. No, it was dirty. All the buildings were like that small square of grime in Grand Central, stained through years of industry and smoke. People on mules lugged loads. Cars honked, weaving between each other. We drove over the Nile again on the 6th October bridge (all the street signs were in Arabic and English). The river was so wide. The driver stopped for me to take a picture. It wasn’t that wide. It was maybe a little bigger than the Wilammette. The bridge was high. “Are there crocodiles in there?” I asked. “Yes!” he said, “No one goes swimming, or you have to be very good.” But the Nile has more than one arm; that’s what makes it so powerful.
We drove down a highway with half-finished cement buildings on both sides, neighborhoods of them, with occasional laundry lines hanging out windows. In Giza, the street was narrow and each direction was separated by a canal of sewage. The road was dirt and filled with potholes. I was so tired it hurt to keep my eyes open. When my driver led me to the tourist office, where I would receive a private tour instead of just walking around and being pestered by the locals trying to sell me things, I had a cup of sweet Egyptian coffee. I paid a hundred dollars for the grand tour. As I sat outside, they convinced me to buy a Bedouin head wrap for ten dollars. I nearly didn’t but I thought of how cold it would be in Turkey, and how I missed my opportunity in the bus terminal. Plus it was 80% Egyptian cotton, not like all the other imitation wraps.
I decdided to ride a camel over a horse and approached the large male beast, which was groaning and showing his huge mouth filled with teeth dirty at the gumline and fang-shaped gums. I hopped on and we set off, my tour guide riding a small horse, and another man who didn’t speak English leading my camel. They never give me my ticket, though, so we had to wait at the gate for a man to bring it to us. Meanwhile, young children raced horses, another threw a glass bottle at a wild mule, Egyptian ladies ate breakfast in the shadows on their porches, horses ate fresh alfalfa and the back alleys of Giza generally hummed with morning life. My guide picked up a falafel for me for breakfast, much softer, sweeter and emptier than the Israeli style. We entered the park, and began ascending a large dune, the Pyramids to my right. I heard my guide’s horse panting. My camel was doing well.
Our first stop was a beautiful vista. My camel leader hissed at the camel to get it to kneel, folding its legs underneath itself like a sphinx and resting on its flat breast bone. “Good camel,” I whispered, hoping it would like me more. My guide took pictures of me, and walked down to a couple of Bedouins for some tea. He came back up and we smoked and talked of Napoleon’s audacity in shooting off the Sphinx’s nose and the top of the Great Pyramid, about how life is very long and how there are plenty of countries worth visiting, and how Egypt’ status in the world has been harmed by the revolution, and how hard tourism has been hit: a hundred yards from the Pyramids you used to have to dismount in order to get close enough to touch them. Now with no one here, you can climb them, which you’re not really supposed to do.
As I looked out at that serene view, I contemplated life and death, and felt like I was ready for the latter when it comes. I thought about how we all try to outdo our fathers, since the Pyramids are 4500 years old and were built by pharoahs who wanted to up the ante on the pyramids downriver. These kings chose the spot where the sphinx was because it was on the Nile, atop a mountain. The Sphinx itself was sacred in their time; today it’s seven thousand years old.
We packed up and moved on, getting ever closer. The little pyramid is only eighty-five meters tall. One night my tour guide got drunk and climbed it. He spent three hours getting back down. “People used to climb them all the time, before Egyptians realized their history,” he said. We approached the Great Pyramid, the one which still has the alabaster on it at the top, where Muhammad Ali kept the stone after removing enough from the base to build his citadel in the year 51. There were so few people around that when I dismounted, not only was I able to touch the great stones that made up the Pyramids, but my guide encouraged me to climb them. I got about thirty feet up before I began thinking about how long it took my tour guide to get back down, and we had already spent so much time talking…we still had a lot to see if I was going to get to my flight on time…
We pressed on and this time I rode the horse. Down to the Sphinx, which has been covered by bricks on its base to protect people from touching it. It was sculpted out of a single piece of stone. A young girl led me by the hand to take funny pictures of me touching the Sphinx in different ways. I didn’t tip her, even though she was good. I never asked for her services. I did feel slightly bad about it, and I wondered how much I should tip my tour guide, who I knew was expecting a lot.
And so when we got back to the camel, my tour guide asked if I had a good time and said it was time to tip the man who led my camel. I pulled out 20 pounds, five dollars, and offered it to him. He looked at my tour guide, who said, “That is not very much. Usually people tip more. It is the only way he makes money and he only works one tour a day. Especially now that tourism has been hurt…” So I took out another thirty pounds and offered it to him. Again he looked to my tour guide who said, “Still most people offer one hundred, sometimes two hundred pounds. It is the only way he makes money and he works very hard.” Jesus Christ, I thought, these Arabs with their conniving, from the camera and their hospitality, to their flat out audacity in asking for more money. Fifty pounds is ten dollars. All this guy did was lead my camel through the sand. It’s not like it was backbreaking manual labor, and he gets to do it in front of these serene monuments…
“I understand, but I’m on a very limited budget. I may look like a rich American (my wallet actually did have trouble closing with the three thousand pounds all in hundreds, but that was because I needed to exchange it for Euros later; I couldn’t keep withdrawing from ATMs and getting charged seven bucks each time…) But in reality I have very little money, and it needs to last me. I spent four hundred dollars in the last day, so please, I’m sorry, but this is the best I can do.” Again the little man looked to the guide, who nodded and said, “It is okay.” I tried to remain buoyant after this, knowing that there was more to come.
And indeed, after we exited the walls of the park, my guide asked for more after I gave him a hundred pounds. “I take American bills too,” he said. So I took out my last American money, a Lincoln and still he said, “Some people give fifty, a hundred dollars. This is only twenty-five dollars.” “I know!” I said, “That’s a good amount of money for me. I’m sorry I can’t tip you more, but I’m on a very strict budget.” And here I imagined my Granny saying “Tough. It’s not their money they’re giving away. They’re used to getting more out of people. Well toooo bad!” And I felt better.
We rode through stables, past mangy horses and past nicer ones. A boy led a beautiful brown Arabian horse with a heavy vein running along its belly. I commented on his beauty, feeling better that we were able to talk to smooth over any weirdness remaining after he didn’t get the tip he wanted. “Yes, these horses can cost a million dollars.” Ahead was a gorgeous white horse with a shiny mane and a long white tail. “That one is beautiful.” “Yes,” he said, “She is kept for breeding.” And the boy who led her turned her around. As she passed, the horse my guide rode reared his head, smelling this beautiful female. I laughed, “He thinks so too.”
We got to the papyrus museum and when they offered me strong Egyptian tea and bottled water, I knew they expected me to tip them too. Wael was very informative, excited and and enthusiastic about teaching me how they made papyrus, by thinly slicing the river plant and drying it, re-soaking it and pounding it. He showed me a picture of the Last Judgement, and told me that if I knew the answer to this question I would get a treat. Nubis weighs the heart and the feather (symbol of justice) in determining whether a man goes to hell or not. I knew that a man’s actions are worth more than his words and so I said, indeed, if the heart is heavier he goes to hell because while his intentions may have been good, his actions were not. He hi-5ed me.
Then he tried to sell me on this print of the Last Judgement. I told him that I wouldn’t buy this 1500 pound papyrus art if it were 20 pounds. This went on; he tried again. Again. He said, “Our manager gives us three rules: always be happy to teach about papyrus, always give the best deal possible on papyrus, and never pressure customers to buy. So if you don’t want, it is okay. But let me show you, just in case.” Then the manager chimed in. “I can make you a deal. You can have the little Last Judgement for 200 pounds. What price do you want it?” “I wouldn’t take it if it were 20 pounds,” I repeated, “I have neither the space nor the desire.” Then he pulled out bookmarks, at which I smiled since I could buy these and use them. “Bookmarks, hell I’ll take one of those. How much?” “20 pounds.” “Great.” And still he persisted, “How many friends do you have, I can give you three for 40.” But I was resolute. These people were kind, but I hadn’t asked for any of this. I didn’t need papyrus. So after about half an hour of them trying to sell me, I told them that I had a flight to catch, and I felt pretty ready to leave.
My driver coasted on the mostly-empty highway, back across the Nile and to the west of the dusty city, which was getting hotter and hotter. Traffic was bad. We picked up his wife from the road. She sat in the back. I worried about getting to the airport two hours before my flight, thinking that there was still a chance that after all that had happened there could be some Egyptian bureaucratic holdup, and I could miss my flight. But I put this worry out of my mind. I closed my eyes, which burned with need of sleep. Finally we arrived and I worried my driver too would harass me about a tip. But when I took my bags out of the car, still wearing my scarf like a turban, and tipped him thirty pounds he seemed surprised and appreciative.
I walked to the check-in, proudly, like a sheik. People turned to look at this foreigner dressed like a Saudi King. They probably wondered if I was rich. I thought about wearing it to Athens. But I realized that as soon as you leave Rome, you don’t keep acting like a Roman. As the man who was checking me in looked down, I switched the sheik look to urban American by putting on my beanie. He looked up and laughed. I did too.
I had time to spare so I walked upstairs for a sandwich. I bought a carrot-orange juice which was incredibly sweet and fresh. I felt like a Holocaust survivor who had been offered soup by an American — the juice was so rich it hurt to swallow. My body was physically exhausted. If I ate too fast my stomach could explode.
I changed my bills and waited to board, still feeling like a celebrity. On the plane as we left Egypt I was delighted to see beautiful Greek stewardesses. Women without burqas. I had done it; the great race was over. Time to start the next leg of my trip. Goodbye Cairo.