We had booked a driver to take us to the Pyramids the previous day and we met Salah on the steps of our hotel early Tuesday morning. As we were driving along the eastern bank of the Nile he began fishing around behind the sun visor. This was slightly disconcerting but by now I had great faith in the driving ability of the local Egyptians. Having found what he was looking for, he thrust a pile of photocopied letters of recomendation into our hands for our inspection. He seemed quite proud of them and we congratulated him on having such good references.
We had not gone far when Salah stopped the car in the middle of a bridge over the river to show us an island which had papyrus growing on it. Salah’s English was quite hard to understand so we weren’t entirely sure what we were looking at. We took the obligatory photo and got back in the car.
Having seen where papyrus comes from, we then stopped at the ‘Egypt Papyrus Museum’. We thought it was very nice of Salah to show us this as we had thought we would just be going to the Pyramids. We got out and went inside while Salah stayed in the car. We were greeted as soon as we passed through the door into an air-conditioned gallery. We were directed to one side and offered drinks while a man demonstrated the procedure of making papyrus in what seemed like one breath. He also pointed out how to avoid buying fake papyrus which they obviously did not sell. He then gave us little pieces of paper and pencils where we could mark down all the papyrus paintings we liked. By now I could see we weren’t getting out of there with my credit card untouched. He followed us around the gallery, pointing out paintings that would be suitable for mother, father and sister. I decided to take him up on his offer of a Coke.
We stepped out into the Egyptian heat some time, and many pounds, later, after solving Christmas present problems for many. He had supposedly given me some great deal, but he talked so fast I couldn’t remember how much I had saved. It was only as we drove off that I began to notice all the other papyrus museums and institutes along the side of the road to the Pyramids.
I know I keep going on about Egyptian driving but it really is something to experience and what happened next was quite interesting. We were stuck for a little while between a truck in one lane and a slow-moving car in the other. Salah maneuvered for a moment then drove straight up between them – this is on a two ‘lane’ road, although as I mentioned the lanes are quite optional. He shook his head and said to us, ‘Mad’. I had to agree…
We were passing through some suburbs, with many of the houses built in the characteristic ‘half-finished’ style, when we came round a bend and suddenly noticed the Pyramids out the left hand window. It was quite strange. Behind us was the city and in front was the desert. As we drove passed the policemen on camels to the viewing area that overlooks the plateau, we were glad that we hadn’t decided to catch the bus; the Giza Plateau is quite an expanse of desert.
It seems a redundant thing to say, but the Pyramids are truly massive. And truly ancient. To paraphrase: you may think it takes a long time to queue for a train ticket at Victoria Station but that’s just peanuts to the Pyramids. Listen…(Sorry)
The Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops) is the sole remaining wonder of the original seven. They were built by the rulers of the Old Kingdom (2686 – 2181 BC) (or possibly aliens). Evelyn Waugh said of the Pyramids while staying at the Mena House in 1929: “The Pyramids were a quarter of a mile away; it felt odd to be living at such close quarters with anything quite so famous – it was like having the Prince of Wales at the next table in a restaurant; one kept pretending not to notice, while all the time glancing furtively to see if they were still there.”
I recorded the scene on silver halide, silicon and tape. There was a kind of bazaar up there, but even I could tell I was going to be ripped off so we didn’t look.
They open different pyramids so as to give them a rest from the tourists. We went to the littlest one (62m, orig. 65.5m), the Pyramid of Menkaure (Mycerinus). I had decided to wait outside with the police and the cameras, unsure whether I had made the right decision. I stood in the shade of the Pyramid while Kathryn entered the tiny passage. When she emerged, sweating and pink faced, I knew I had made the right decision.
The other big draw is the Sphinx. It was smaller than I had expected, and the path leading to it was swarming with little children. They would tug at your clothes trying to sell you postcards and statues. You literally had to wade through them.
We met our ride, thinking we would be going back to the hotel. And in a sense we were. We would just make a couple of stops on the way. First up was a perfume shop which from what I could gather was either owned by, patronised by or started by, or just had a picture on the wall of Mohammed Al Fayed. As usual we were the only people there and, as usual, I ordered a Coke. We looked through a glass door and were shown a man producing the little glass oil bottles over a bunsen burner. The display room was huge, with bottles of all shapes, colours and sizes adorning the shelves.
We sat down and were shown a list of forty-six oils. My heart sank as the salesman produced a bottled labeled ‘No 1’. He proceeded to paint a sample from a number of bottles onto our arms, describing the variously relaxing or erotic affects of each. We rapidly began to run out of space on our arms and I figured the only way to stop him moving onto our legs was to offer to buy some stuff. We bought the smallest bottle of ‘Queen of Egypt’ and three little glass bottles. I still couldn’t get the whole bargaining thing right so I’m sure I paid three times what I should have.
As we got back in the car Salah asked if we wanted to see how carpets were made. By this time I was starting to see a pattern. I shrewdly said ‘no thanks’ and so avoided having to put our baggage allowance to the test with the thirty foot rug I would have no doubt bought. Too busy congratulating myself at that near miss, I wasn’t on guard when he suggested going to a bazaar. Sure enough, it turned out to be another shop full of crap where we were the only customers. We escaped by buying a silver scarab beetle. They didn’t even offer me a Coke. As we left I quickly said, ‘So, back to the hotel then.’
Then came the problem of Baksheesh. I never quite got the hang of this. Basically, it is tipping. But I could never figure out how much or when to give. There are people who’s job is to open doors. Baksheesh them? Well, yes, in theory. But how much? What about when you have already agreed a price for something? It is complicated by the fact that the British Pound is so strong. I could buy ten Egyptian Pounds for one of my own. Does that mean I should baksheesh more? Also, there seems to be a chronic shortage of small change in Egypt, so I began to hoard it. I developed a whole system of placing different value notes in different pockets of my cargo trousers so I didn’t have to open my wallet and flip past all those fifties (which, after all, were really only fivers) to get to the small stuff. All this meant I tended to give more rather than less. Still, I could never tell if it was an appropriate amount or not. They would just quickly pocket it without a flicker of emotion. I ended up just shoving a Â£50 note into Salah’s hand and I still don’t know if that was right or not.
After checking out of the hotel (God, more baksheesh for the luggage?), we got a car to Ramses Station through some of the maddest Cairo traffic we had seen. It was as if we were a stone in a river of swirling human and four-wheeled (hooved) traffic. After a comic baksheesh moment with the driver and a wrong turn down some steps in the station we finally got to carriage number 8 and our little cabin. It was small, but quite fun. Dinner – an assortment of undefined meat – was served, before our beds were made. As we were getting into bed, we heard a loud bang. We both thought the bunk was giving way, more a problem for me on the lower bed. After inspecting the bed we discovered that it was actually the outer pane of glass on the carriage window that had shattered. I went to sleep half expecting to wake up with a glassy gale blowing over me.
Instead, we woke to the sounds of my phone’s alarm at 3:30am. After picking at the breakfast of bread, cheese and olives we rolled into Luxor station where we were met by a driver hastily organised the night before. After some fumbled baksheeshing we finally got to our room at the Sheraton Luxor as the sun was rising, lighting up the Valley of the Kings on the other side of the Nile.