Ok, I’ll just write it – how I’m feeling – AMAZING. I was at the Pyramids. Today in Cairo Egypt. At the Pyramids. Of Egypt. Pyramids. It was a round about day of traffic and do it yourself madness, but that’s completely tolerable as I seeing the Pyramids. Really, one of my life long dreams.
Getting to the Great Pyramids – No Organized Tour for Me
I left my room at the Sara Inn Hostel at about 9:30 and conversed with the young front deskman. He immediately tried to dissuade me from my plan of getting on the metro and taking a taxi to the Great Pyramids of Giza. Not enough time, too much effort, and I won’t see everything were his takes on my situation, but I was not deterred. I told my new friend that my friends had tried it before and it worked. He resigned to my choice and told me to be careful of the people there and made a hand gesture to indicate they were going to rob me blind. He told me not to pay more than 10 Egyptian Pounds (LE) for a ride from the station to Giza, 15 at the most. This was very useful advice. I took it and walked a few blocks to the Metro station.
The metro stop was by the large circle, Midan Tahrir, a block long roundabout where cars fight and joust for first in line position and stoplights are really a suggestion to pedestrians and the cars. I did what I always do in crazy traffic in developing countries – I follow the locals and position myself where they would be hit first if somehow a car went for us. Luckily this has never happened.
As I was walking, I noticed that the women of Cairo are completely covered up, with just their face showing. They do this in several degrees. The teenagers are more fashionable and wear long denim skirts, tighter cotton tops, and some matching print head scarf. Twenty to thirty somethings wore more pants with the long tops and headscarves. Middle-aged women donned long shapeless mumus and black headscarfs, and then the older women were in plain black dresses and had forgone any sort of total body covering fashion. Identifying this catalogue of women’s fashion led me to pull my hair back, no matter what there were no women with their locks flowing in the breeze like mine had been and I felt compelled to have some of their modesty to fit in.
The metro was clean and orderly, I found the Giza train and stood near the groups of women. I had read that there were several designated cars for women and when the train pulled up there were cars and cars of dudes only and then, in the center, a nice safe haven for the ladies. I also noticed after boarding that I was the tallest one in either car, by a head. There were some stares, but we were mostly curious about each other and checked each other out completely.
My stop was Giza and I made my way down the platform to catch a taxi. A young man came up and talked to me, at first I ignored him remembering how frequently this happened in India. However, Abdul cleared it up right away that he didn’t want anything from me, but to show me how to catch a bus, the 333, to the pyramids. My experience in Kalcutta had taught me how to ride buses in India and from the crowds in Giza, the method to the madness looked similar. Abdul mentioned that his father was an English teacher and that showed in his perfect conversation. He was a student studying Arabic and wanted to show me that Egyptians were helpful and nice and that I should have a good experience with them in Cairo. That was a pleasant surprise and he dropped me off at the bus stop with explicit instructions on how to catch the 333. The numbers 333 in Arabic look like three backward sevens with a little kink in the roof and after 10 minutes of waiting for the bus, I grabbed a taxi for the 10 LE.
The First Sighting – Pyramids in the Suburb of Giza?
The pyramids rose out of the horizon, right outside the suburb of Giza. We were driving and there the great one was – the Pyramid Kurfu I gasped, the site is stunning and I realized that I had made it, made it to the pyramids. And there they were in front of me. Several touts and a police check later, my driver dropped me off at the entrance where I began my walk around the first pyramid. The second one, Pyramid Khafre, was a misty stone shape behind it. The stones are taller than people, the width wider than a block and the stones step towards the sun. The Egyptians believed that their Pharaohs were descended from the gods and these towers were their way of connecting to the divine upon death. Just like the Catholic cathedrals that rise up and up to Heaven, so do the Pyramids.
I walked towards the second one and saw the smaller third one, Pyramid Menkaura, in the distance, but did not go over. The domed back of the Sphinx’s head was on my way down the hill. The Sphinx is smaller in person and the nose is gone, but framed against the Pyramids, it holds its own against the great stone temples. It’s the guard, the over see-er, sitting proudly and at attention at the base of the great monuments to the pharaohs.
My original goal was to only see Giza today and then get my train tickets at the main station via metro. But I wasn’t feeling that, really. I got another cab to the metro, this time after refusing several 20 LE offers from drivers who would not meet my 10 LE price. The driver was explaining that there are more Pyramids, outside of Cairo. I knew this only yesterday when the women on the plane explained they were doing a similar tour on their trip. Saqqura, Dahshur, and Memphis were right outside. I was feeling that and negotiated a fair price with the driver and took off with him for the rest of the afternoon.
There’s More Pyramids than Giza? Take Me to Them!
On the way out of town, I saw Cairo go on and on and then turn into mansions and villages. The Cairo the continued for kilometers included many half-finished cement shells of apartment buildings, highways and crazy-ass traffic. The driver, Moussarah, had to turn around and take the highway the opposite way we came and we had to go through a literal construction site to do so. Teams of Cairo men were working (?) on several overpasses and major thoroughfares had closed down. Instead about five lanes of traffic, cars, huge trucks, motorbikes, and buses were weaning into one lane. Not a paved lane, but one dirt road lane that went through this construction site. Madness, utter madness. At one time I moved to the other side of the car to avoid being an inch from a giant truck’s giant tires. This lasted 45 minutes. It was like being in a car, in a vice grip and other cars were turning the handle to squeeze, but thankfully Moussarah would get out of harm’s way at the last minute.
After we left the city, we followed a “river” past very tall gates and walls that guarded mansions as big as hotels. The river we drove next to was a green sludge mess barely flowing past its shores of garbage. Thankfully, there were no children playing in it. I saw a tanker truck emptying some liquid into the flowage. I have to believe that the green fields we passed where mangos and palm trees grew were irrigated from the Nile and not from the sludge flow. (Note to Americans reading this: Let’s take a moment to thank those tree huggers from the 60s, Gaylord Nelson, John Muir and all those social programs that promoted our cultural awareness and care for natural resources so our rivers would never go unchecked like this, because at one time, they did. See Superfund sites if you don’t think it could’ve happened to us).
Saqqura – the Step Pyramid
Our first stop was Saqqara, home of the Step Pyramid. The Imothep museum at the base was very clean and well-done housed artifacts from the pyramid that dated from 2500 BC. Amazing statues carved from clay, Egyptian alabaster vases, and my favorite, little containers that looked like bowling pins with Pharoanic heads. These housed the mummies’ organs and were buried with the person. There was even a real mummy. All black and shrively, but very well preserved. The Step Pyramid was stepped, and it seemed like each Pharaoh experimented with different shapes and sizes. The Great Pyramids were huge, this one was stepped, and then the second stop revealed the Bent Pyramid of Sneferu.
Saqqara also included an incredible tomb that had original wall carvings with the Egyptian Hieroglyphics and scenes from courtly life. This was my favorite part of the day. The details were fine and descriptive. Every animal from the region was represented; oxen, horses, and fish patterns lined the depictions of armies and royalty. There were no pics allowed in this area, but my super sweet camera was so silent that no one but a Dutch girl noticed and she said she wouldn’t tell.
On to Dashur – the Oldest and Most Bent Pyramid
Dashur was further away and a little more crumbly, but also home to the newly opened Bent Pyramid. At first, I tried to venture into the Red Pyramid, also the oldest known pyramid and dates from 2600 BC. There were about 60 steps up and then a little opening. I looked down the cavern that reminded me of scenes in movies where miners go in with lit up hats and then all you hear is walls falling and see a dust plume about the opening. No way was I going down there. The road to the Bent Pyramid was suitable for jeeping and not the rickety 1970s something Peugeot that was our taxi. I prayed to the former Pharaohs, now gods, that we did not get a flat. The brakes sounded like compressed air and our car shook, but we made it back and forth for a good picture.
Unfortunately, we did not make it to Memphis in time before closing. Instead, as I expected, we had tea at a shop at the entrance. Of course my driver would take commissions from any purchases I made. The mint tea was refreshing and the shop owner and his son polite, sharing cookies with the tea. The son asked me to look inside the shop and went into a very rehearsed presentation on how papyrus is made. I refused to buy anything and we left for our long journey through Cairo traffic home.
Moussarah was a great driver and he let me off where my journey began – at the metro stop. I had two falafels and fries at a street side cafe. Perfect local fare for $1.25 and walked back to my hotel, several blocks away. Now, I’m back at the hotel and feeling the train station tomorrow to buy my tickets to Alexandria and then Luxor. For sightseeing, I’m undecided, maybe Coptic Cairo or the Egyptian Museum, and of course, I have to inquire about belly dancing.
One observation from today that proves humanity is humanity and everyone in this world is the same, no matter where we come from. In the cab, we passed a group of boys who looked about 10 years old. They were standing in a circle watching each other make those armpit noises. You know the action where one puts one’s hand in the armpit and makes the noise by pumping one’s crooked elbow up and down. Think of that the next time Fox News cries about how we’re all so different and need to be angry at each other.