Today is Friday, a holy day in Cairo. It’s Worship Time and loud and horribly distorted Arabic sermons are ringing out across the city. I’ve situated the table on our balcony to face the pyramids. There is nothing but sand between me and them and though I’ve seen the pyramids from all directions and stared at them for hours already, I’m still not tired of looking at them.
We arrived later than expected at Cairo Airport two days ago and then waited for our luggage for over an hour. Two of our bags showed up but the third was MIA. We waited pensively along with at least ten other small clusters of people for the belt to start moving again. Finally it did and out our third and final bag tumbled into the pick-up area, relieved that we hadn’t left without it.
The driver who met us at the airport was a young man. He spoke very little to us and he struck me as someone who was very sad. He took us to a Carrefour to gather supplies for the week before dropping us off at our vacation rental. The trip across the city took nearly an hour. Lydian and I went inside the grocery store to find food but John stayed with the car and the driver to watch our bags. We were still paranoid and on-guard from our sojourn in Tunisia. John told me later that while Lydi and our were shopping, he’d asked our driver where he would travel if he could go anywhere in the world.
“Egypt.” He said. “I would stay in Egypt. I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
At the time, after having spent over a month marinating in the negativity of Tunisia, his statement seemed sad, but now that we’ve had a few days here in Nazlet al-Samaan village at the very edge of Cairo, I can better understand his sentiments. Egypt is an exceptionally friendly place. I’ve gotten more hugs here in three days than I’ve gotten at home this entire year.
I was worried when the driver pulled up to our vacation rental in Nazlet al Samaam beside a giant pile of trash that was, at the time, occupied
by a varied collection of cats, kittens, goats, and dogs. Horses and camels galloped by the vehicle as we disembarked from it. The smell of the trash was pungent. There was a herd of goats near the gateway into our apartment complex. “Soma”, a small, soft-spoken Muslim woman wearing a hajib took us up to our rental.
It was dark and getting late. I could see the shadow of a pyramid from the terrace but in the dark, it seemed potentially disappointing or at least less spectacular than the photos we’d seen of the view. By morning, however, we were able to see the pyramids in their full splendor.
“You’re not going to believe this.” John said, when I got up in the morning. He pulled back the curtains of our bedroom window and said, “You can see the camels trekking up the path to the pyramids from here.” Indeed, all night long, we could hear goats bleating, geese honking, chickens crowing, and horses galloping by outside our windows. It was surreal. The pyramids stood tall and solid, wrapped in a light brownish haze, the sandy remnants of a light breeze kicked up by the heat of the sun peeking above the horizon.
It’s been three days and we haven’t officially paid for tickets to go up to the pyramids yet. We’ve been too busy. The people in the village have been vying to get to know us. We’ve been invited to tea three times. I received a lovely gift of an embroidered cloak from a shop owner last night. Apparently, this is common and we’ve been told not to get swept away by the hospitality because we could find ourselves in situation where we feel compelled to buy something from everyone in the shopkeeper’s family, but Sana, the shopkeeper seems genuine and just extraordinarily sweet. Needless to say, we’ll decline on the tea in order to avoid drinking the tap water here. We’ve already met most of her family anyway.
Last night, we took a camel ride out into the desert with one of Sana’s relatives, Hani, to see the Sahara and yet another view of the pyramids. It was amazing. Lydi got her own private camel while John and I rode with the camel drivers, but my driver also trailed a baby camel named “Chocolate” which was my special treat. He was quite a cutie with the spiky fur on his still undeveloped hump exposed through a decorative blanket. Sometimes he would get scared and confused by all the activity on the path that led out into the desert, but a light slap with a stick and he’d turn back around and straighten himself out again. My camel was named “Bop Marley”, Lydi’s was “Charly Brown”, and John’s was “Daisy”.
On top of the sand dunes some distance from our house and the pyramids were some rickety wooden structures covered with heavy fabric to protect the occupants from the wind. Carpets had been laid out on the sand and we sat on cushions for a while as the sun set. Two cats, a boy and girl, made their rounds as the drivers drank tea and faced Mecca to do their prayers.
“I can’t believe we’re here.” Lydian said over and over, the cold wind whipping her hair around. “Here we are and there are the pyramids…we’re in EGYPT.”
This is, after all, the first and arguably the best tourist destination of all time. We felt lucky because we were all alone on our camel tour. The media has virtually destroyed the tourist industry here. I enjoyed the private, authentic feeling of being in the desert all alone with only the locals, but they’re lives are much harder right now because of how Egypt has been portrayed on the news.
One of the camel drivers had us pose for a variety of pictures promising that he would give us some really good shots. His creativity was unending and some of the photos were pretty hilarious. It got cold then and the wind started to blow so we started back. On the way, we encountered a traffic jam of horse carts, camels, ATV’s, and tuk tuks. Poor, shy little Chocolate nosed in between the older camels whenever an engine would roar past us.
Sitting astride the camel at rush hour, I could only imagine how different our experience would be if we were there among the 14 million tourists who would normally make a trip to Egypt each year. We were stuck in traffic for only five minutes waiting for the carts and horses to work their way through the bottleneck and I was thoroughly entertained by the chaos in part because it didn’t last too long. Then, the camels trotted us back home. The whole process had the raw, casual feel of a rural town anywhere in the world. But had we come here during the on-season in a typical year, our camel ride would have been one of many that day, undertaken by the camel drivers with groups of tourists, rather than perhaps the only ride into the desert taken by just the three of us at the time of our choosing.
Every tourist who made eye contact with me on our way into and out of the desert smiled at me broadly, which was monumental. Most tourists don’t make eye contact with other tourists at all. In general (though there are exceptions), tourists are in competition with each other. They are not allies. I’m not sure why the tourists doing camel rides to the pyramids were so friendly, but I suspect it has to do with how friendly and hospitable the Egyptians are. And perhaps how surprising it is to feel safe and indeed lavished with attention in this premier tourist destination. I hope that our family can return to Egypt many more times, but I’m glad to have gotten to see the sites when their tourist numbers are down. Some day in the future we’ll go back and see more obscure hard-to-reach sites but we’ll never forget our great fortune at seeing such an amazing place and meeting so many kind and hospitable people without having to navigate the experience with throngs of other tourists.