Sunday, October 10, 2010

Today’s agenda: The Pyramids

In a temporary state of ignorance, I hadn’t realized that there are hundreds of pyramids in Egypt until I started doing research for this trip. And there are different kinds, from different periods. So, narrowing it down can be a challenge.
Nader made the decision for me. We would see Saqqara, which has a step pyramid; Dahshur, which has a red and bent pyramid; and the most well known, Giza.
It’s a 45 minute ride to our first stop, but because it’s Friday we aren’t subject to the awful Cairo traffic I keep hearing about. (Muslim countries have Friday and Saturday as their weekend.) He’s driving behind a small truck for a few minutes before I start wondering, “Is he going to pass this guy or what?” I finally ask him. He replies that he doesn’t want to drive too fast with me in the car. I tell him I’ve driven in India and southeast Asia, so driving in Egypt is nothing. This makes him immensely happy and he swerves around the sluggish lorry and we pick up some speed. But not too much, as there are speed bumps every 5 miles or so. He says this is because the farmers leave their kids behind to play along the roads, and they run out in the street, so the government put the speed bumps in to force the cars to slow down.
We arrive at Saqqara at 10am, and it’s already scorching. Not steaming, because that would imply moisture. And there is none of that. (Which incidentally makes for very good hair days… the first trip I think I will have good hair in pictures, until I realize I am sweating so much that it’s impossible. Oh well, at least my bad travel hair will be consistent!)
Saqqara is in the middle of nowhere. Sand stretches in every direction for miles until the horizon gets fuzzy. One pyramid has disintegrated into a pile of sand. The step pyramid looks like it might crumble away at any moment. And for a moment I think, “eh, they’re not that impressive.” Until I tune into Nader and I’m reminded that they are 5000 years old. The fact that there is anything remaining of the them at all is amazing.
Next stop: Dahshur. The bent pyramid is a misleading name, because it’s more rounded than bent. It’s neighbor isn’t “bent” but you’re allowed to go inside. Nader says he’ll wait for me outside. Not a good sign. I peer down the narrow, dark, steep decline before plunging in. It’s at least 2 stories down, at a steep slant, bent over. The entire tunnel is maybe 4 feet high. It makes the Vietcong tunnels Melissa and I walked through seem spacious. It’s also getting stuffy. I finally reach the bottom and am able to stand up straight. As I’m aching my back in a stretch, I notice a strong smell, like ammonia. I look around and there’s nothing to see. The walls are bare. It’s dark. And it smells. Bad. It's slightly cool, because I mean, come on, I'm INSIDE a pyramid.  But not enough to stay longer than it takes to catch my breath. By the time I make it back up the top of the cramped ramp, I’m drenched in sweat and panting for my life. And the stench of ammonia? It’s from bat
poop. Nice.

When I stumble to the (thankfully) air conditioned car, I ask Nader if Giza is also empty. When he nods I say, “ok, then I don’t need to go inside.” He laughs in response.

I guzzle an entire water bottle and then start quizzing Nader about his life. He got married "old": at 30.  He’s 40 now. He has 3 kids: 1 girl and 2 boys. He explained how you go to school in Egypt to be a guide and how he gives his business cards to tour companies that then recommend him to clients.

By the time we get to Giza it’s 1pm. So basically, it’s like being on the sun. There’s very little shade. And unlike the other 2 sights, which were virtually empty, Giza is teeming with tourists. Gigantic groups of Japanese with their umbrellas and high-tech cameras. Russians in short skirts, halter tops and heels. Fat, old British ladies in tube tops. Yes, tube tops. (unflattering and inappropriate anywhere, let alone in a conservative Muslim country!) Americans in their sneakers and socks and baseball caps.

There’s easily 1,000 people. All cramming into very tight quarters. Lovely. I take a slug of water and tell Nader I’ll meet him outside in 30 minutes. A troop over to the pyramids. There are 3 in a row, and the largest one is big. The biggest I’ve seen. But I have to say, they look… vulnerable. Not weak necessarily. Just as if they have what is takes to remain … but that it also wouldn’t take much for them to disappear. It’s always funny to me when I see such a well known monument like this, or the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal. You’ve seen them in cartoons growing up, and on calendars and coasters and in movies. And when you finally do see them in real life, they almost don’t look real.

I stumble around in the bright heat to the Sphinx. It literally sits at the edge of the city sprawl, with satellite dishes clustered on top of buildings and Pizza Hut across the street. Kind of like how the Colosseum in Rome is in the middle of all the traffic. Still, when I turn my back on the city and face the Sphinx for some photo ops, it’s makes me smile to myself that I’m actually hear in Egypt.

A footnote: I wasn’t aware of this, but in Egypt they make their falafels with fava beans instead of chick peas. Saying it’s better doesn’t do it justice. There is no comparison. If I were to open a fava bean falafel stand in NYC, I would be rich. Trust me.


  1. Love the chan like photo of you kissing the monument! Do all guides learn this in guide school!?

  2. He didn't take this pix... a little kid did. I gave him a few coins for the effort, and he responded by wetly kissing my hand. Needless to say my purel is getting a workout!

  3. fava bean falafel?? oh my God that's genius! Naturally, if they added bacon it would taste even better! : )