It was Tuesday, September 15, 2015 in Cairo, Egypt.
I arrived 5 hours later than I was supposed to and wasn’t exactly sure if my guide would still be at the airport. I was nervous based on Lonely Planet’s warnings of aggression and a 90% chance that I’d be groped at some point on my trip. When, I saw my name on a sign immediately after stepping foot out the door, I did a happy dance, and tripped over my pant leg.
Abdo, our guide, waited for me for 5 hours. He greeted me and I felt safe and comfortable immediately. He took my bag and led me to his little car. It was a long drive to the hotel, which was in Giza, across the Nile from Cairo. We hit the highway directly, which at first, didn’t seem all too different. Big highway, big billboards, some palm trees. Kind of like California! Abdo explained that it was never this calm except for late at night. It was 1:15am. He took advantage of the space, like sleeping in a king-sized bed alone, and drove straddling a white line.
The highway was non-stop lined with buildings, in varying condition and packed in close. At one point, I noticed rows and rows of identical buildings that looked like brand new construction, without any sign of occupancy. I got flashes of the vacant and dark corridors between the buildings, as we passed at 145 KPH. I was dumbfounded by the depth of this concrete ghost-town of perfection. “What the?” I asked. This was the first of many times that I’d hear Abdo say, “I just told you…”. His accent was a challenge for me. I’m one of those people that puts the subtitles on when I watch British films. I listened more closely and he explained that these places were built for the large population. “They keep building them” he said, “but there still aren’t enough”. “But they’re empty,” I said. He explained that the population in greater Cairo is 30 million and growing, which is hard to fathom. I understood the concept the same way I understand why they just keep building apartments in Denver. It’ll make sense some day, I guess.
Giza at Night
The streets of Giza were my first peak into the chaos of this place. They were hustling and bustling, even at that hour. We turned down the street of the hotel which was very brightly lit. There were shops open and local men on the street wide awake and shouting a bit. I don’t know what that was about.
The Mena House Hotel is a historic palace with a gated entrance. When we arrived we turned off the car for security, while dogs sniffed it. Later Rudy would say that it was because it’s better for the bomb to go off at security than in the lobby. The gates were opened when the car didn’t explode. Walking into reception was a little like walking into the 19th century, but also like the 1970s, as there were mirrors on the ceilings. Although thoroughly remodeled, they were thankfully careful to retain that old world charm and mix in some modern from the time.
I said goodnight to Abdo, who told me that he would be back in 6 hours to pick us up for the Pyramid tour. This was news to me. I was delirious with exhaustion, having only dozed off for multiple 10 minute spells, across gate area seats at the Frankfurt airport earlier that day… or was it the day before? I hadn’t really really slept for about 33 hours. I would need to make the most of the next 6 hours with committed deep sleep.
The First Hotel Room
They took me to the new section of the hotel, outside of the palace, in a golf cart; my bag was in a separate golf cart. My room was much nicer than I’d ever felt deserving of staying in, especially alone. “This is just for me?” I thought.
I was taken out onto this 4th floor veranda and pointed out “the pyramid view”. The smog was so thick and the floods in the garden so bright that it was hard to see anything. I squinted, searching grayish darkness and came up with nothing, for a full minute. Suddenly, I saw a hard line, at an angle. Following it up and up and up, I adjusted my perspective. It was right there! Much closer and larger than I thought possible. I had been looking right through Khufu’s Pyramid for something much smaller on the horizon. I squeeeeed with excitement and jumped around a little, for the bell hop’s entertainment and my own release of energy that I had been building for, what seemed like, ever.
View of the pyramid from the courtyard below my room in the morning.
When left alone, I noticed a bag on the table. A gift from Richard and Jordan, the hosts of this trip, a sweet welcome note attached to a bottle of Champagne. As tempting as it was to pop the cork, I needed sleep not a hangover. I called the front desk for a 7am wake up call, showered and laid out my clothes for the next day. It was 2:45 am, before my head hit the pillow.
The next two hours consisted of self soothing, sleep-inducing techniques, weird noises, thermostat translation issues and eventually, me on the balcony with an open bottle of champagne, watching 7+ workers, carrying and hammering and clanging away. They were building something metal in the courtyard below. Since I wasn’t going to be sleeping, I climbed over the balcony railing to sit with my bottle and an unobstructed view. It didn’t feel like 4:30am. I sat in the darkness of the New Moon, at the brink of dawn and beheld the greatest pyramid of all time, built 4,500 years ago.
After about a third of the bottle, irritation crept back in and then disbelief when added to the noise was some very loud music. Like really loud, amplified terrible singing in Arabic! Feeling courageous (champagne), I yelled, yes yelled, down “you know I can hear everything!!!!”. The clanging stopped, the amplified singing stopped (unrelated to my yelling, it turns out) and a golf cart headed in my direction, blinking it’s headlights. I went inside and fell asleep while practicing my complaints for the front desk in the morning and crying just a little (it’s a sedative).
Pyramid tour day, ready or not!
My wake up call came way too soon. I feared that it would be a difficult, sleep deprived day, and on the day of the pyramid tours, which I’d seen as the highlight of this trip since January, when I booked my flight. On the bright side, almost two hours of uninterrupted sleep was glorious. I closed my eyes for just a moment and quickly fell back to sleep. Richard called me from breakfast 20 minutes later, jarring me directly to my feet. I donned my meticulously planned white pyramid-goddess-outfit, slathered on some sunscreen and met them for breakfast.
The view from breakfast, wedding construction in progress.
The beauty of the grounds of the hotel was breathtaking, even if it wasn’t for those huge Pyramids as a backdrop. The excitement of seeing Jordan and Richard and the anticipation of the true start of our adventure filled me with energy and I knew it would be a glorious day, no matter what. Add a Turkish coffee and there was absolutely no doubt.
Jordan and Richard & how I found myself in Egypt
February 18, 2012, all dolled up for the Fasching Ball.
I thought you knew! Jordan and Richard are fabulously talented and driven friends of mine who have also been my most consistent and awesome clients, since the start of their business Vaudeville (site about to launch), in 2012. I’ve known them since 2008 when I met Richard in an acting class, in Denver. Jordan had researched a vacation in Egypt and decided to gift some friends the opportunity to join them on a week long cruise down the Nile, paid for. Feeling like I’d just won the lottery on the opportunity of a lifetime, I booked my flight, the next day. My trip included an additional week surrounding the float, which would start on day 4.
The breakfast buffet
The buffet, which spread through two connected rooms, inside a beautifully modern building (so modern that I can’t even find a picture on the internet) with tile floors, high ceilings and huge plate glass windows, was ridiculous. Eggs, sausage, hash browns. Fruit, salads. Pastries, croissants, toast, falafel, cereals. Cheeses, deli meats, yogurts, jams, olives. Fattoush, baba ganoush, hummus, pita. Noodles even! This would be the first of many smorgasbord meals to come. The ones where you fill your plate one last time, three times.
After breakfast, I met two of our other travel companions. Rudy is an abstract artist, originally from Mexico. I already knew of him because of his work with The Gallery at Vaudeville. He uses photography to create these fabulously colorful, abstract (sometimes illuminated from behind), large scale prints. My other new friend, his partner Chris, is an unassuming business baron. He seemed so relaxed for running so many business and properties of his own. A fascinating sweetheart.
The wedding build as of Thursday morning.
I talked to the front desk about my night, but only after Jordan already had. It turns out they were building for a huge (bigger than you imagined just now, probably) wedding on the upcoming Thursday, the night of the day we were leaving. With a word of apology they upgraded me to the palace, where the rest of my crew was staying, without a charge. I’d move in when I got back from the day.
And we’re off!
Abdo had been waiting for us, since just before 8am. We were ready by 9, a delay which would become the norm without some serious effort. We met our shuttle driver, spread out in the mini van we had to ourselves, and headed out of Giza to Saqqara, where the earlier pyramids were built. On the way, I took few photos out of the windows but lots of mental notes.
A very tame picture on the highway, featuring a random roadside Ferris-wheel.
Passengering on the streets of Cairo was a thrilling adventure, on its own. One can try to relax, but every three seconds there was what seemed like a near miss happening right in front of my eyes. Cars drove between and around pedestrians and horse drawn carriages and jockeyed for position with mopeds, paying no mind to the lines in the road, traffic lights or signs. Cars had half-full gas cans strapped to their roofs, mini-vans with missing doors were packed with people, one baby hanging out of a passenger window and another pressed up against the hatch-back glass. Horns are constant, chatter between drivers, through open windows was a regular thing as they negotiated the next move, or offered critique to each other. The rules: If you stop, you loose. It’s kinda like roller derby drills. I think that I’d be good at it.
from a google search
The edges of the streets and canals in Cairo were lined with trash; there’s a waste and garbage management issue there. It’s like they’ve given up. I imagine it’s hard to have a different mindset when you are surrounded by filth. The air quality is so bad, it smells of smoke and looks like a light fog, all of the time. Maybe that’s what keeps the heat manageable in Cairo, I’m no meteorologist.
Imhotep & Saqqara
We arrived at Saqqara, once in the center of the capital of Egypt, Memphis. It’s basically an ancient burial ground. I’m not going to pretend to have an encyclopedia brain that captures and remembers historical facts, but in writing these memoirs, I’m seizing the opportunity to solidify my knowledge and understanding by referencing Wikipedia.
At Saqqara, the oldest complete stone building complex known in history was built: Djoser‘s step pyramid, built during the Third Dynasty. Another 16 Egyptian kings built pyramids at Saqqara, which are now in various states of preservation or dilapidation. High officials added private funeral monuments to this necropolis during the entire pharaonic period. It remained an important complex for non-royal burials and cult ceremonies for more than 3,000 years, well into Ptolemaic and Roman times.
Here we saw our first pyramids, up close. We climbed in and out of tombs and saw our first hieroglyphs, which I was in complete awe of. The very first one that I saw felt so special and rare. I had no idea that as we entered the temple, I’d be surrounded by so many elaborate and perfect, in every way, relief carvings, full of stories, information about their lives and their gods.
Take a picture. Pay me.
Taking photos in the temples was forbidden, but the guardians there to prevent you from taking photos alternately encouraged us to take photos. Confused at first, and afraid to see what would happen if I did, I didn’t. An especially aggressive guardian, a heavy-ish older man with a big grin, exposing his missing teeth, got Rudy to bite. Rudy took a picture and was immediately accosted for money and when he paid, urged to take another photo. The rest of the group was already moving on from that room and listening to Abdo give us the complete low down. I hung back a bit, concerned. After the two of them disappeared around the corner, I alerted the group by saying “that one has Rudy in there, you guys!”. When he came out, he said that he’d given the guy $25 and got kissed! I wish I hadn’t been so shy and had gotten a photo of that man. I promised Rudy that I’d work with him to do a police sketch, but we never did.
We could see the famed bent pyramid in the distance, but because we had gotten a late start, we opted to skip it to spend more time at the Great Pyramid.
On the way, we passed by the carpet schools (there were many), a popular trade there, apparently. We were invited to stop, but decided to keep with the plan to get back to Giza.
dining hall – photo credit Christopher Hill
Lunch break in Cairo
We stopped for lunch at a cafeteria, designed for tourists, it seemed. This buffet was not decadent. My first inclination was to go somewhere else, but as a group, we decided to stay. We talked about only eating things that reached a certain temp in cooking, but I really wanted something fresh. It felt needed. At the table, I boasted about my strong stomach as I ate my salad. Others followed. We all took our chances. We were instructed by our guide that he would pay for our meals and then we could pay him back, or we would get ripped off. The question still remains, about who would have ripped us off more, as it was not an inexpensive lunch.
In the bathroom, I tipped the attendant one American dollar, which must have been a good tip there because the 12 year old Egyptian beauty did this mesmerizing, head-only dance move for me when she saw it. She did not smile.
After lunch we stopped at the papyrus museum/store. We had a demonstration on the ancient paper, which was fascinating. The sugar in the fibers, chemically bonds together when pressed for a day or so. This stop was more on Abdo’s agenda than our own, but what we learned there did come in handy, later in our explorations.
The Pyramids at Giza
The approach to the Giza Plateau was far less epic than I imagined, because it was basically where I’d woken up that morning. Across the street from our hotel, we drove through a gate flanked with armed guards, chillin’ out, smoking cigarettes. We bought our tickets, one for entry, one for Khufu’s pyramid and one for Menkaure’s pyramid.
Around the corner from the office, the Great Pyramid was only 100 yards away. Along that stretch we were accosted by our first of many vendors. Carrying scarves, carved or casted(?) sculptures of the Sphinx, jewelry and other things that Abdo called “not authentic Egyptian. Oriental knock offs.” He recommended against buying any of it. The vendors approached, first welcoming us. There seemed to be an order in that each one would pick a tourist and that tourist was theirs for the duration. The pressure to buy was coupled with a sincerely friendly and playful chat. They’d ask “what’s your name” and share their own, shaking your hand. When rejected, they would continue by giving you some ridiculously low price, like “you can have one, two, three, four, five, six… ALL for just one American dollar”. It was clearly a trick, and I didn’t go for it. I just made conversation telling my dedicated salesman that I wasn’t much into trinkets, even through I knew that he probably didn’t understand what I was saying. I thought that maybe if I distracted him, I could escape. A strong “La Shokran” were really the magic words. But only temporarily. “OK, maybe later!” they’d say.
My White Pyramid Goddess Outfit! – photo by Christopher Hill
I’d thought that maybe we were seeing Ancient Egypt in chronological order that day, but Abdo’s reasoning for taking us to Saqqara first was to avoid the crowds. We only had two hours at the Giza Pyramids, but there was almost no one else there! Everyone I’d ever talked to about Egypt would complain that it was overrun with tourists. The death of tourism since the 2011 demonstrations was fortunate for us.
Khufu’s Pyramid – The Great Pyramid
Once at the base of Kuhfu’s pyramid, Abdo gave us the scoop on the history. This pyramid seemed the most climbable, if you’re young and strong enough, because of the huge 3.5′ deep and tall “steps”. I wanted to climb it to the top, but apparently, that’s forbidden. It turns out that those steps were really only the underlayment for what used to be the pyramid’s surface. At one time, for 4 thousand years or so, there was a smooth, virtually seamless and gleaming limestone casing covering the biggest pyramid ever created (more than half of a mile around, if you trace the base). About 200 years ago the military leader, governor and self appointed something or another of Egypt, Muhammad Ali needed some limestone for his Mosque. So, he took it! Never mind that four thousand years earlier, Ancient Egyptians and whoever else, managed to move the stones, weighing 2.3 metric tons each, 900+ miles and then place them absolutely perfectly, finishing this precious monument, which reaches 448′ into the sky. What is wrong with people!?! It makes me so mad…. Let’s move on.
Me climbing in the Great Pyramid – photo by Christopher Hill
After a bit of history, we climbed up to the entry of the burial chamber. Guards told me that I couldn’t bring my camera in, so I handed it to Abdo to hold. I ducked into the tight and narrow entrance and began my climb to the chamber, which was set high up and deep in the center of the pyramid, as opposed to the more usual placement, underneath. A board with cross bars underfoot, makes the long journey to the center manageable. Climbing up the original slick stone, never meant as a passage, once the tomb was sealed, would be a struggle.
The corridor was long, dark and surrounded by stone and even though it seemed cooler, it was more humid and I was instantly covered in sweat. You have to duck while you climb at first, but it does open up a little further in, to the relief of anyone with a touch of claustrophobia that might have made it that far. The deeper we went, the more I felt a sense of suspense, like something supernatural may occur at any moment. I imagined these things in my periphery and ahead in the darkness.
The chamber was small and a non-operational ventilation fan in the corner, leading to who knows where, reminded me of how grateful I was that we were the only ones inside. The walls of the chamber were without decoration. We marveled at the size of the stone, stacked to create the chamber and support the small entrance. Seeing it for ourselves, we agreed that it seemed impossible. We agreed that it was impossible. Its clean lines and lack of carvings or anything decorative at all, made it feel like some kind of stone machine.
I laid inside of the place where Khufu’s sarcophagus once was and sang a little wordless tune to hear my own echo.
In the corridor, on the way out, we did run into one other guy.
I could have sat on the lower stones of this pyramid at dusk for a while, but there was no time (damn Papyrus museum/store). We moved on to Menkaure’s Pyramid and my vendor was ready to greet me. They try to give you things, as gifts and insist that you take them. If you do, you have a very hard time giving them back. In a struggle to escape this vendor, Richard, “my husband” for the duration of this trip, came to my rescue. I draped the “gift” scarf over Mostafa’s shoulder and bolted.
Climbing down the shorter corridor into this smaller pyramid was really cool, but paled in comparison to the really big one, so I don’t have a lot to say.
When we exited, there was a camel tour guide waiting for us. We tried not to look too interested at first, to avoid engagement, but it was too tempting. Abdo suggested that it could be nice to take the camel ride around to the back of the Sphinx and have our photos taken at the panorama view. We asked Abdo what he thought a fair price would be, but he had a thing about not interfering with the process. The guys haggled and got the price down to $100 US dollars. They pushed for a better deal and were pleased with a new offer of 800 Egyptian Pounds. That’s when Abdo jumped in to remind us that 100 USD and 800 LE were almost the same thing. What a good guide.
I was the first to hop on my camel, who immediately stood up, as I screamed and then laughed. I don’t think that I’d ever been on a camel before. “Not even at the zoo when you were a kid?” Jordan asked. I didn’t think so.
I took this little video. It’s kind of a giddy, high-on-life and lack of sleep, selfie with pyramids and camels.
It was perfect until we reached the end. We were only able to see the Sphinx from the other side of a fence a good distance away and we missed the King’s boat, altogether. Our visit to the Pyramids of Giza, ended in a hurry with us getting ushered off the premises, just before closing time.
Upgrade to the Palace
The view from my new bedroom.
From decadent to ridiculous. My new accommodations had a sitting room and two balconies. My previous travels, mostly restricted to couchsurfing and hostel dorm situations, paid off in my constant amazement on this trip and walking into every room like I was Little Orphan Annie. I’d heard that President Obama had stayed in this hotel at some point and when I saw my new room for two nights, I could have sworn that it was the one that he stayed in.
While I got settled, I heard some amplified singing again, but there was no melody, no music. It was the same sort of thing that I heard just before dawn. It sounded like it was coming from just outside, so I stepped out onto my balcony and looked down. I saw a group of men, one chanting into a microphone and it suddenly made sense. There was no yelling on my part, this time, or ever again. I was hearing Salat, Muslim prayer, of which I would hear many many more.
We drank at the bar downstairs and learned that it what was considered the best hotel bar in all of Egypt and one of the best in the world. After that, we cleaned up and I got a call that Rudy and Chris were hosting a cocktail party for us in their room, before dinner. When I saw Chris and Rudy’s room, I realized that I was clearly mistaken about whose “suite” the president stayed in and I wasn’t even going to pretend to know that it was this one, but the mirrors on the walls, the high ceilings, the woodwork, the huge bed, a living room sized for a middle class single family home and a private garden level veranda on the 10th floor (yeah, crazy), seemed like a good bet.
Indian Food in Egypt
After cocktails and a brief glimpse into the lives of my new friends, we went to the Indian restaurant in the hotel. Jordan ordered for all of us, with our blessings and we were delivered all of our Indian favorites, cooked perfectly and more plentiful than we could possibly finish, but that “the staff would surely enjoy later”. Another aspect of abundant living that this junket would introduce me to.
That, my friends, was just Day One.