Kenny finally, finally blogs about the pyramids.
The merry band of photographers returns to Cairo, exhausted, on a red-eye flight. I fly too! No bus this time–at least I found a cheap ticket back… My plan was to stay in the airport for the hour-and-a-half or so until my flight out from Cairo to Uganda, but our plane was delayed, and by the time the bags started rolling on the conveyor belt in Cairo, I had about five minutes before boarding would finish in some completely different building. So back to the Sheraton for a few hours (hey, there are plenty worse places to crash!), then up with the photographers to see them off for their flights back to Russia and the Ukraine. Then to find the Ethiopian Air office and exchange my ticket…
I should point out that for some reason, my Ugandan SIM card in my phone continued to work on Egyptian networks. Or rather, it could find the networks but was refused access to them unless I pulled out the battery and actually waited for the phone to lose its charge, then tried again. But using that system, though I couldn’t make any calls, I received SMS’s and could send a seemingly unlimited number of them as well, for free. I even sent one to the States to wish my folks a merry Christmas! And, more importantly, that morning I sent one to AIM Travel to ask them to rebook my second flight (Entebbe, Uganda to Nairobi), which I had also now missed, moving it back to the nearest possible date and confirm with me by SMS. This little phone glitch was essential…As usual, necessity was the mother of invention. Just remember to exhaust all your options before deciding there’s not a way to make something work. I don’t know why resetting the phone changed network access, but God made it work that way, and I’m thankful for it. I’m also thankful that the Ethiopian flight could be changed for free, and the Uganda-Kenya flight was only $15.
I’ll spare you the details of finding the Ethiopian Air office. Even my taxi driver didn’t have a clue and resorted to asking a variety of old men on the street who were hard of hearing. But once inside, the woman at the desk partially restored my faith in the character of the Egyptian people. She was kind and polite despite the fact that money wasn’t involved in our transaction–she even let me fill up my canteen at the water cooler and told me how to get to the bus station! I walked out of the office and into the morning sun and yawned and stretched. Here I was in Cairo with almost twenty-four hours to spare until my next red-eye flight out. “It’s 26 kilometers to Giza,” I thought, “I got a full bag o’ bread, half a packet of dried dates, it’s sunny…and I got a camera with me. Hit it!”
For less than a buck I rode the public bus all the way from some random residential district out to Giza. I had my luggage (just a backpack, thank goodness I traveled light) in addition to my camera bag at this point, since I could sleep at the Sheraton unnoticed but probably couldn’t leave bags with them the same way. So I leaned forward onto my backpack and immediately conked out. A very nice young woman kept trying to wake me up, insisting it wasn’t safe to sleep on the bus, further restoring my faith in the character of the Egyptian people after all the shouts of “hundred percent discount” in the bazaar and the stiff-necked automatons of Shams Alam. She even agreed to let the bus driver know (he didn’t speak English) to wake me up at the pyramids so I didn’t unwittingly ride back…
When I got in to see the pyramids (past the rather persistent tourist-trap hawkers trying to sell you expensive entry by horse-drawn carriage), the first thing I did was fall asleep. It must have been early afternoon by then, no time to take photos. I found a flat stone three meters square lying in the dust in the shadow of the Great Pyramid, stuck my backpack below my legs and my camera bag under my head, pulled my hat down over my eyes and laid out to get some sleep. When I woke up I feasted on the food my Russian friends had donated to me, drank the last of my water, and set about photo-ing.
I pity any non-photographer who has to travel with one of us. If you can do that and not pull your hair out, you’re a hero. I mean when I’m photographing, I move slow. I think I got to the other side of the first pyramid before it started getting dark. But that didn’t hurry me! I was waiting patiently for the “golden hour” to arrive, photographic prime-time. At some point I photographed a Russian tourist couple with their camera–they were searching for someone to do them the favor but apparently didn’t speak English. Then I noticed a young man watching me as I finished with the Russians. Big backpacking backpack on, hiking boots, jacket tied around his waist. Young, with his hair in a pony-tail and a scruffy close beard and moustache. He had a friendly face that reminded me of a guy I knew in college. A point-n-shoot camera dangled from his wrist.
“Where you from?”
“Ohhh!!!—” and we started off talking in French. He asked if I could take his photograph in front of the pyramids. His name was Leo. He was a few years younger than me and had been wandering the Middle East on his own for almost two years now. (He looked surprisingly well-groomed for someone trying to spend less than 5 euros a day, as I would later find!) The kind of guy who’s reserved and very kind, a quiet but free spirit. He said he had just arrived today, and I imagined he might really have just now walked out of the desert beyond the pyramids. I noticed he had several two-liter bottles of water on his pack and so asked if he was hungry. He was, so I proposed a little trade. I was thirsty, he was hungry, I’m sure we could work something out. Shams Alam’s bread rolls came in handy again! Revenge is sweet, or in this case salty. As Leo poured the water into my canteen, I stopped to ask how he had purified it. “I don’t purify at all,” he said. “I drink the water and let my organism adjust, become stronger.” Okaaaay, I thought, that’s great if you’re traveling as long as he’s been. For me, time to add the iodine!
We chatted as we wandered further out into the desert around the pyramids. He had been to school as a gardener, but left to wander the world. Originally he had planned six months, I think, but then had just kept going. The number of other tourists thinned out noticeably in the span of half an hour, until eventually we were the only two non-Egyptians in sight. The only others visible were the Egyptians offering camel rides and a few horse-drawn carriages trundling their tourists back in the direction of the gates. Leo headed off into the distance to take a photograph from a far-off dune. I photographed the Egyptian tourist hunters heading home for the day. Off in the distance some riders flew by on horseback at full gallop, kicking up the dust and playfully racing each other back. At some point I reached into my camera bag and was changing lenses when the umpteenth camel jockey rode up to me and said “ride the camel!” When I said no and moved to walk away, he started talking in either Arabic or an unintelligible attempt at English. I was so sick of them by this point, of having to say “No, no thank you. No, thank, you. No. NO CAMELS.”, that I had ceased to pay attention to what he was even trying to say. I turned to get away from him and rather meanly pulled out a phrase I remembered from the wikipedia phrasebook that meant something like “Get lost” or “Buzz off!”, momentarily feeling very self-satisfied with having said it. It shut him up alright. But when I glanced back at him, I saw he wasn’t following me or trying to get me to go for a ride. He was just pointing with his riding crop at the spot where I’d been standing when he rode past. As I looked, he said the word “pen.” My Cross pen, given to me by my grandfather, had fallen out of my bag when I was fumbling with camera equipment and was lying there in the sand. Not a terrible loss, but not something I’d like to lose, either. Man, did I feel like a jerk. And I was. I walked back, picked up my pen, and told him thank you, thank you, thank you, in Arabic, then stood their thinking, trying to figure out how to make him comprehend that I was sorry for being rude and sure felt bad about it. He just smiled back a shy smile as if to say, forget about it, it’s okay, we all have moments like that. I fumbled for some change, wanting to pay him the cost of a camel ride, but he waved it off and instead pointed to my camera and said something. He wanted his picture taken! Now that, I could arrange. He smiled when I showed him the result and then rode off in the direction he had been going, the direction, in fact, everyone was going except for Leo and I. Where was Leo anyway?
I spotted him at the top of a distant sand dune. He had made it to the top and was just admiring the view. I called out and motioned to him that we’d better go back. When we finally set out, I wanted to go back to the entrance I’d come in at. Leo said no, we’d better go to this other one–and pointed off waaaay into the distance at another set of gates. No time to debate, Leo said, the Pyramids were already officially closed. “And those men standing over there,” he added, pointing in the direction of my entrance, “will probably want a little something from us before we can leave.” Eventually I agreed, it just meant I couldn’t find the same bus from his route. This was the golden 15 minutes of photo time, and it’s a darn shame the pyramids “close” before that. Every time I stood still and turned around to face the pyramids again to get a photo, a distant whistle rang out. Someone was watching us, and was not happy with us. So we kept walking away from the whistles and toward Leo’s recommendation. As we passed one of the smaller step pyramids a crazy old man emerged from who knows where, gestured at the pyramid, and said “Climb the pyramid?” Weird. No thanks. We kept going, momentarily scuttling across some rubble and down into a hollowed-out area with some pillars and blocks, a nice cool spot but no place to stay now. We traversed it and emerged on a hill that sloped down to the wall surrounding the pyramid area. On the other side was the town. We passed by some other ancient building, distinctly non-pyramidal though, with a scrawny black dog perched beside its entrance. A curious sight–the very avatar of Anubis out to greet us, or else to see us off and make sure we weren’t planning any tomb raiding. Oh, and then we passed by the Sphinx. I had spotted it earlier but honestly had not recognized it for what it was, skirting it by and there meeting Leo. Now that I saw it, I thought, “That’s it?” The size is still impressive, don’t get me wrong. Just the placement makes it seem like an afterthought, I suppose. In better (morning) light it might prove different.
Leo had led us to a small gate in the wall with just one guard sitting by it. As we approached, the guard lumbered up and locked the gate. Oh great, I thought. Just in time. Or maybe this guy wants a few bucks too. But when he saw us, he leaned forward, turned his head, and pointed at a larger gate, for vehicles, the entrace for the paved road coming down from the pyramids. A single black SUV with tinted mirrors was making its way down the path, some high-profile tourists I guess. The gate was being opened for them to leave as we watched, so we took the guard’s advice and used the opportunity to slip out that way.
On the bus we ate the last of my apples and discussed where we would go that evening. There’s nothing quite like wandering the city streets at night with no imposed schedule or objective. But I think I’ve told you about that already, in an earlier post…