Pyramid Schemes

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
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Trip End Apr 22, 2005


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Saturday, April 2, 2005

There are far more impressive sites in this world though none are older or more teaming with lecherous parasites than the famous crumbling blocks in Lower Egypt. As towering monuments to one of the world's greatest civilizations I encountered in their shadows the least civilized people I have ever met.

Exhausted from three days of swatting away copious touts and lotharios thick and relentless as a swarm of mosquitoes I needed a respite. While Cairo is certainly an exotic and exhilarating city I was longing to be actually able to see it and enjoy its splendors without plagues of pests descending at every turn. The real reason I came to the capital however is pay homage to the last surviving wonders of the ancient world: the pyramids of Giza. It was time.

I was speaking to Ruth the septuagenarian Scottish expat who's resided in my hotel for the past thirty years on the best time to visit. She insisted I see the sound and light show, which begins nightly at 6:30. She also suggested that around two hours would suffice to see the pyramids if I didn't want to venture into any of them. My guidebook warned that anyone with even the slightest inclination towards claustrophobia should not crawl in the narrow passageways. The book also advised that after 3:00 was a good time to go as most tourist buses had already packed up for the day. I had a plan.

"It's ten pounds to the entrance of the pyramids" Ruth warned, "No more!" I walked out to Tarbar square and flagged a cab. "Pyramids in Giza, please. Ten Pounds Egyptian" I said raising my brows, "Yes?" He nodded and I got inside and repeated myself once more for safe measure and off to Giza we headed. We crossed the glorious Nile with vessels of every kind plying her waters while families on the corniche strolled along beside it. We passed medieval minarets, art deco cinemas and modern highrises down palm-lined streets while I made mental notes of places to see for the next few days. Shortly after we were at a sandy incline and the cab stopped, "This is it" he said. I ducked to look through the windshield and there it was, the Great Pyramid Cheops. I looked at my watch, it was 3:35. "Perfect, I've got plenty of time to relax" I said reaching for my wallet.

I didn't have change so I handed over a twenty and said "I'll take nine back, please." He reached in the glove compartment and handed over a five. I reminded him that I'd said "ten" to him twice and he'd agreed. Suddenly his grasp of English grew shaky. "I'd like four more back please" I insisted. He shook his head but seeing that I was not going to give up and wasn't about to go anywhere he relented and very slowly doled out the rest in singles. He then smiled and told me to enjoy myself. "I intend to, sir and I thank you."

I went to the admissions booth and shelled over my forty pounds entrance fee and got my ticket. I walked to a gate and presented it and with the sound of it being ripped in half by the guard I heard, "Camel ride, lady?" Smiling, I thanked him but said I wasn't interested. He persisted and followed me lowering his rates and I continued to walk and staring straight ahead told him, "If it were free I still wouldn't be interested -- thank you." A boy approached walking backwards in front of me "You want postcards?" I shook my head and said no thank you in Arabic -he persisted thrusting the stack towards me and I had to step to the left to avoid slamming into him. He continued, trying to put bookmarks and key chains in my hands. I sped up and ignored him. I stopped to look straight up at the first pyramid and shrugged. I was at the very base and from such close proximity it looked like a very, very high pile of rocks. "Where are you from" hollered a camel jockey in my peripheral vision. I averted his gaze and looked back up at the heap of blocks stiff-necked until he passed. I heard him leave and turned to look at the other pyramid and on the road next to me a group of thirty-odd elementary school children obscured its full view. "Hello" they shouted and knowing they weren't selling anything I responded. They came running down and encircled me asking the usual questionings. I responded and posed for photographs with them and made small talk. They were charming if not a bit overwhelming as they crowded around hugging me and touching my hair. They were harmless and one sweet girl tried to give me her ring but I of course graciously and humbly refused. Like a canteen of cool water in the desert it was refreshing to be surrounded by the only Egyptians I'd met in Cairo who weren't trying to either swindle or bed me. As sweet as it was it was wearing thin after ten minutes so while I spoke to them I sped up my pace and then the teacher called to them and they scrambled away.

I was nearing an area where I could sit and gaze and take it all in when a camel crossed my path and stopped. Again, I said I wasn't interested and that there was nothing he could do to convince me otherwise and I wished him good luck and tried to move away. He blocked me. Ironically it was the proverbial straw that broke the dromedary's back. "Listen, to me. I want you to leave me alone. I want you to get on your hump and get the hell away from me. I have had it. For three days now I have been harassed, cajoled, and pestered and now I have had it. I said I wasn't interested and I said it politely and with respect and now I am telling you to get away me and to please just leave me alone. Please I..."

The shrill of a police whistle cut me short. I could see a tourist policeman heading over the sand. "Good! Finally I can enjoy some peace and quiet around here" I gloated. The policeman approached, "Closed! 4:00! Pyramids closed!" My eyes bulged and brows knitted, "Excuse me? Are you serious?" He again told me the time and behind him I saw other policemen waving their arms to shoo away the tourists. I was shell-shocked and flabbergasted. I stood in complete dismay, my jaw unhinged and throat went dry. "I just paid 40 pounds only 25 minutes ago. There's no sign saying it was closed at 4:00. Why didn't the man at the counter tell me? I could have come earlier tomorrow." I was disconsolate I could barely move. "Closed!" he yapped, "You go down to Sphinx!" I couldn't even return to the original ticket booth to resolve the problem and was being corralled down a hill. Then I heard the camel jockey high over my shoulder tell me that he could still get me a ride and take me to a place "to meditate." With clenched fists, I spun around, my hair whipped about like a noose around my neck I unleashed all the frustration and anger that had been pent up for the past 72 hours and screamed with everything I had in me opening a spigot of frustrated rage, "SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! GET AWAY I CAN'T TAKE IT!" My nostrils flared and with clawed hands I walked toward him, narrowing my eyes "GO!!! GO!!!!!" He turned and went. I dropped to the sand and regained my composure ashamed for having lost my temper yet relieved to have released it.

I pulled myself back up physically and now was trying to do so emotionally as I pouted and wrapped my arms around me and scuffed down to the Sphinx. "That's it?!," I blurted at the site of the back of its head sitting low in the pit "It's tiny!" I was trying to look on the bright side but it was nowhere to be seen. I could still see the light show, I thought and it's only two and half hours away so I can find a bar and drink myself into oblivion. I'll make the best of it, I thought. Three policemen suspiciously urged me to follow them down a different path, "You come this way to Sphinx." I refused telling them it was obvious that I could also continue on the path I was on along with the others and that I was fine. "You married? Have husband? Where's husband?" they asked. I lied and told them he was sick at the hotel. Then I caught myself and fumed, "Aren't you supposed to be the ones who protect the tourists from harassment? I want you all to leave me alone. You got that?" I stopped, hoping that they'd pass and took out my camera to take a quick shot of the Sphinx's profile. The thick mustachioed one with the cocked beret turned on me and growled, "Keep going -closed! Go!" I taunted him repeating back his orders and then stopped and calmed myself and told him very quietly and very slowly to "Go. Away. Do. Not. Follow. Me. I am leaving now. Leave. Me. Alone." I squared my shoulders and walked slowly with chin held high and thought how I could have made a terrible mistake to be argumentative with a policeman in a foreign country. I also knew I couldn't let him see that he'd intimidated me and with my ramrod carriage alone I slowly descended defying him to approach me further. He did not.

I spotted an elevated café within the grounds with tables facing the Sphinx and three pyramids. I ordered a tiny bottle of red wine in which to drown my exasperation and disenchantment and settled in with hours left before the sound and light show. I was calming myself and leaned back in my chair facing the great antiquities and trying to conjure an emotion - something, anything. I dug deep and finally had to acknowledge to myself that all I felt was disappointment and extreme frustration. What a shame I thought, here I am before the great pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx seeing things most people will only dream about. The reality of the Egyptians had turned the dream to a nightmare. It's taken hundreds of years to build and had stood for thousands of years and in twenty-five minutes they'd destroyed it for me.

The wellspring of hope bubbled up again if only lightly like a flat glass of champagne. I was still hoping something good would happen, something that would redeem the day and if nothing else maybe the wine would lull me to a place where I could overlook the grievances of the day. A packet of papyri bookmarks slapped against the tabletop. I looked forward and two teenagers stood across from me, "Buy bookmark!" I told the little one to get them away from my table and to leave. I thanked him and wished him good luck but said I was not interested and wanted only to be left alone. He repeated himself several more times. I motioned for the waiter then the boy leapt forward and snatching the packet away braced himself on the edge and pushed the table. My glass tipped over splattering my white gauzy sleeve in red wine. I jumped and a waitress pointed to the restroom. I ran down and thrust my arm under the water and soaped up my sleeve and then spent the next five minutes trying to dry myself off. Outside of the ladies room I passed a table where a boy was standing and then I heard him scream, "One pound! Toilet - one pound!" Without hesitation I flatly refused with a resounding, "NO!" and bolted up the stairs. I downed my wine and ordered another.

The manager approached hovering over me as I has just taken my first sip and asked if I'd mind paying my bill. I told that I intended on staying for the light and sound show and would be drinking more throughout the evening. "Do you already have your ticket for the show?" he asked. I didn't know that there was an extra charge for the show I told him. Grinding the rock salt in the gash he informed me, "Oh yes, the price is 60 pounds and you must buy your ticket first." Battered and bruised, I pulled myself up like a kicked around rag doll and wilted to the ticket booth.

I explained the entire past hour's travail and felt my mouth parch and eyes varnish. One of them wore a badge with his titled engraved, "Public Relations". He listened intently but remained unfazed and then ending the conversation he took a step forward and said, "There's nothing I can do. Sorry." I gave up and surrendered and finally voiced it and I didn't care who heard it.

"Sir, this is the 25th country I've visited" I began. "In all my journeys for the past fifteen years I have never been so accosted by a people in all my life. At every turn I have seen open palms expecting baksheesh for every single menial task and even for delivering toilet paper to my hotel room. I have been hounded for blocks to visit perfume shops and souvenir stores and the ones who haven't attacked with sales pitches have made lewd passes at me. Since I've been in Cairo there has not been a single soul who's spoken to me for more than one minute who didn't want something from me. It's exhausting and it casts your entire country in a repellent light. Many people feel the same as I - you should hear the conversations in the hotels in this city. All of these heartless Egyptians have successfully ruined any goodwill I may have felt for this country or its people. Insofar as I've been witness the Cairenes are liars and cheats and are without a doubt the most heartless and lecherous people I've ever encountered in my life. If there is one decent Egyptian in this town I'll be damned if I've seen one. This entire day has been nothing short of hideous." I hadn't wanted to admit it to myself but there it was. This place had kicked it out of me and now I could breathe again.

A man standing nearby seemed to take pity and spoke up. "Come tomorrow at 11:00 and I will get you inside for free" he said. Though still suspicious I pretended to believe him in the off chance that he really was actually legitimate. I looked to the stone-cold public relations man for a nod to signify that the Samaritan was indeed good. He said that it should be fine. I caved in when he pointed to the gate where I was to meet him the next day. I extended my hand and thanked him repeatedly.

I felt a bit more upbeat as I headed back to my table to await the start of the show. Three Canadian professors joined me and listened intently as I regurgitated the day's travails. One of them had also arrived shortly before 4:00 and was equally miffed and disappointed.

The show began with booming narration and various tinted lights bathed the antiquities in various hues. An undercurrent of 1950's Hollywood biblical epic scores blared. The magic slowly began to ebb and flow. Without any Egyptians in my sightline to destroy it I began to actually enjoy taking in the colored lights and often unintentional comical narration.

Now without any pestering and within the lull of the wine the magnitude of where I was sitting was washing over me. I let it go and relaxed and was beginning to enjoy myself finally. Roughly twenty minutes into the hour long show I felt a body behind me as a flashlight was shown on my purse, "Your bill is 50 pounds, madam - please pay now."

I asked if I could pay when the show was over. "I don't want to miss anything" I explained. The unctuous manager leaned toward me and smiled and turned his cheek, "Okay but maybe a little kiss first."

END OF PART I

Christina
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