“Democracy has its price. The Pharoahs did not have to deal with unions or labour laws.”
I was sitting by the sidewalk, next to the gift shop with the 63 year old owner, Abdullah, a man with a kind voice and an interesting point of view. Right across the road were the compound walls of the Great Pyramids of Giza. It was evening and the sun was about to set, giving the sky a nice golden hue. Over the compound walls we could see the lime covered tip of the Pyramid of Khafra. The tour buses had left and the tour guides were heading back home with their camels and horses; the sound of their hooves ringing in the air.
“Have you seen the Pyramid of Khufu yet?” He asked. I nodded, taking a sip from the cup of tea that the owner was nice enough to offer as I walked out from the guest house, located a floor above the gift shop, for an evening walk.
“Have a cup of tea with me.” He had said. I insisted that I did not drink tea, but he insisted back.
“Hundred thousand workers worked for twenty years to make the Pyramid of Khufu. They worked day and night. Beer and food was given out as wages. Try that now and before you know it, Tahrir Square will be up in flames again.”
He laughed. I joined in… awkwardly.
“I wonder thousand years from now, what our successors will remember us by.”
Having spent a considerable amount of time in the United States, his English was as good as a native. He had to return back to Egypt to manage the gift shop and the guest house when his father passed away. Every now and then someone passing by would greet him. After exchanging pleasantries, he would say to me in a hushed voice, “We went to school together” or “I knew his father.”
I wanted to tell him that mankind may not exist for another thousand years so he need not worry, but that would just encourage him to keep talking. I had finished my cup of sugar syrup, which he called tea and wondered if it was rude to take his leave before he finished his.
“Of course, we have the Burj Khalifa and the Empire State Building, but they will not last a thousand years like these Pyramids. You never know when someone decides to crash a plane into them in the name of religion.”
He laughed again.
He said the R-word. That’s worse than the F-word.
I recalled all the travel advisories I had read before my trip, asking travelers to avoid topics revolving around religion and politics.
A shop across the road pulled down its shutters noisily.
He continued with his thoughts, speaking more to himself than to me, taking sips from his cup occasionally. After he finished his tea, he told me about this local diner which was about a 10 minute walk. I think his exact words were, “It is good enough.”
I walked past the main entrance gate, where about two weeks back I had tendered a 100 EGP note for a ticket that cost 80 EGP. In the excitement and anticipation of seeing the great Pyramids for the first time, I had forgotten to take the change. As I passed, I strained my ears hoping that someone will call out me.
“Hey mister, you forgot your 20 pounds the other day.”
Of course, no one did.
20 pounds is not a big amount. Not when you compare it with 300 Pounds that I spent to ride a camel on that day. Not just the money, I almost had a heart attack every time the camel made a sound.
Sure, there was the 15 year old guide walking alongside, making sure that the camel behaved itself but it made me wonder constantly what would happen if it decided not to listen to him. What if the camel decided that he has had enough and just started running. Away from the Pyramids, away from Cairo, and then throw me down in some desert. I would be stranded in the midst of endless sand dunes, with the half a bottle of water and a packet of chewing gum that I had in my bag, with a bunch of vultures circling overhead, waiting for me to die.
Yup, that would suck.
Or it may just throw me down and just maul me right in front of the Sphinx. Elephants turn rebellious all the time and if the gentle, kind elephants can do it, there is no reason why a camel can’t.
Seriously though, if you are afraid of animals and heights like me, camel has to be the second most scariest animal that you can decide to ride.
First being the giraffe.
A little further away were various shops selling sweets and groceries and they all seemed very busy. The streets were ill lit and dotted with animal dung. People were sitting by the sidewalk, in groups, chatting and smoking hukkas, the coffee shops were crowded, a couple of people were getting haircuts at the local saloon as kids played football on the road, ignoring the occasional car that honked by, with loud thumping Arabic music bursting through its windows. From a street vendor, I tried a round, fried sweet that everyone seemed to be having, and tried in vain to tell him that it was too sweet and I didn’t want another one.
It is strange how simple and laidback the vibe around the town was, and how only a handful of travelers actually decide to spend the night at the Pyramid complex. I found the diner that Abdullah was talking about, and had a bowl of Kushari. He was right, “Good enough” just about defined it.
On my way back, I decided to grab a cup of coffee and watch some TV at a café down the road. Even a boring football match can seem entertaining when you haven’t watched a minute of television for two weeks.
I planned to wake up early the next day and spend the day at the Pyramids. This was my last day in Egypt, and I wanted to explore it on foot, with two bottles of water, a big packet of chips and a guide book in my bag.
No guides. No camels. No BS.
I started by walking through the cemetery of the workers, walked for about 20 minutes through the golden sand to reach the top of a dune, from where I could see all the three Pyramids. The bright blue sky, the yellow sand and the ancient structures in the middle painted a beautiful picture.
I decided to sit and admire the view for a while. I could see the tourist buses in the distance, bringing in ant sized people, who seemed to pose for pictures before they even looked at the ancient wonders. The camels and horses trotted around, taking the visitors from one Pyramid to the next. I would have sat there for hours if the weather was a bit nicer.
I spent the day walking around the Pyramids, from Menkaure’s to his father Khafra’s and then to his grandfather Khufu’s. It was hot, but I paced myself, resting under the shades and drinking a lot of water. I touched the stone blocks of the Pyramids, and sat on the ones that had fallen off. I shooed away the annoying guides and souvenir vendors and day dreamed about the times of the Pharoahs. I read about their history in my guidebook and took pictures.
Then, I walked through the pyramids of the queens, which is really just heaps of stones arranged in a conical shape, and reached the gates of the guardian of the Pyramids. The Sphinx.
The viewing gallery was crowded with people taking pictures of the Sphinx.
Now, what happened to the days when we just stood in front of a landmark and smiled for pictures. When did that stopped being enough. Why do we have to find that correct camera angle from where it would seem like we are patting the Sphinx’s head, or sitting on its back or kissing its mouth.
(And while I am at it, why do we have to pose in a way that would make it seem like we are holding the beautiful white marbled dome of the Taj Mahal from the top like it is a tea kettle. And why do we have to write our names on the walls of the beautiful Red Fort.)
The Sphinx has stood for 4500 years. The Ancient Egyptians used to treat it as a God and worshipped it. It is crumbling due pollution and the blowing sand. We are lucky to be here and see it in person.
Appreciate it. Admire it.
Don’t treat it like it is your pet dog.
That night, me and a few other guests climbed to the terrace of our guest house to watch the Light and Sound show. We watched as the Pyramids changed shades under the colourful lights and the stars twinkled above. As the night progressed, we found ourselves absorbed by their mystique.
Thousands of people had worked for decades to build these Pyramids. Pharoahs had walked on the same sand that I had walked on that day. Battles were fought, kingdoms had fallen, houses were built and destroyed over and over again, inventions ranging from the light bulb to the cell phone were made…
..and the Pyramids just stood there, witnessing it all.
No matter what we build with our modern day technology and machinery, it will always fall short of the allure and the magnificence of the Pyramids.
Sitting on the terrace that night, I realized I couldn’t have found a better place to end my trip.
They call it a “Wonder” for a reason.