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Adventures of a short vet

Camels, pyramids & culture

EGYPT | Monday, 21 June 2010 | Views [1455]

We had a big day ahead of us so after an early breakfast we headed over to Giza with our local guide, Dina, to check out the famous pyramids and Sphinx. It was surreal to see the Great Pyramid looming out of the haze over the buildings on the outskirts of the city. You see the scene so often in movies, TV and pictures that when they are finally in front of you it doesn’t seem real!

We chose to enter the smaller Second Pyramid as it was only EGP30 vs EGP100 for the Great Pyramid, and as there is nothing inside the pyramids but dark tunnels so one is as good as another. That was where I met my first Egyptian camel rider and fell for the old “free photo” scheme where he gets you to take a photo of him “for free”, then wants to take a photo of you, then refuses to give your camera back until you give him some “small monies”, smiling all the time. I knew it was a scheme, but didn’t want to be rude by ignoring him so foolishly greeted him and then was trapped. Luckily I wasn’t stupid enough to get on the camel like he wanted me to (NOT a euphemism for anything!) – unlike another tourist who I saw burst into tears when her boyfriend fell for the same trick and was “kidnapped” when the camel took off. I have to say though, as pushy as they are, the guys are always very friendly and usually take “no thanks” (or as we learned our first and most used Arabic phrase: “La shukran”) well enough as long as you are forceful enough. I told him I only had EGP2 (about 25c) and had to go as my tour group was waiting for me. I gave him the coins, but he wanted some “paper monies” at which point I started to get angry and he quickly handed over my camera with an apology when he realized I wasn’t prepared to put up with any more extortion. Sam & Dina were looking a bit worried (probably thinking “stupid tourist”), but when I told her how much I paid for the photo she said it was the cheapest photo she’d heard of! And they aren’t bad photos either.

We climbed the steep gangplank-type steps down into the pyramid and entered the tomb. It was a lot warmer than I expected, though not as hot as it was getting above the ground! The tomb was a square empty room holding an empty sarcophagus, with graffiti from the fifties carved into the walls. It was pretty amazing to think how ancient it was, though we soon had to leave before it got too stifling.

We emerged into the bright sunlight and headed over to the back of the pyramids where there was a small herd of grumpy camels awaiting us. I had already been offered a camel ride by another boy hassling tourists, but told him I had to ask my imaginary husband, who was “a very jealous man”. We climbed aboard our waiting mounts and set off towards the pyramids. Even though we were just in a line led by a couple of kids, it was still pretty cool to ride past the pyramids on the back of camels pretending to be emerging from the desert. Though I soon realized I wouldn’t have been able to ride for more than 30 minutes, let alone across the desert! Our leader was very helpful, taking photos and positioning the camels just right (and having to nearly break up a fight between two of them), so he earned his “baksheesh” or tip when we got back.

We wandered around the pyramids for a while, and I used my new phrase “La shukran” several times. I was luckily aware of the “present” scam, where the salesman chats happily to you about where you are from after you have declined his wares, and then tries to give you a “free present” because you are now friends. Of course, if you accept then he will ask for a “gift in return”. I actually had to drop a scarf on the ground after it was draped across my shoulders despite my protests after which the salesman refused to take it back. It felt rude, but then again so is completely ignoring someone’s polite request to be left alone! Funnily enough, I would get hassled, but after one or two “La shukran” they would leave me with a friendly wave and head to the next unsuspecting tourist. Though I did see some people really getting hassled as they walked, one lady having to pull a headscarf off her teenage daughter where some guy had placed it and throw it angrily on the ground. I didn’t see the need to get aggressive, in most cases (except for the hijack of my camera and even then I was “politely angry”) as I managed to stay friendly and yet make it very clear I was not interested. I think they can sense when you won’t take any crap!

We left the pyramids and headed over to the Sphinx, which is actually within spitting distance of the pyramids. The Sphinx was pretty much what I expected, but it was crazy to think about when it was built given the size of the blocks. I tried to get a photo with Dr Nick, but every time I put him down some local kid would pick him up and pretend to put him in their pocket. There as no way I was paying a ransom for him so I used my “angry teacher voice and stern look” to get him back. And still they smiled!

Once we’d had enough of standing in the sweltering heat surrounded by tourists and salesmen we headed over to the Cairo National Museum, which was where our guide, Dina, was really in her element, regaling us with the history of the Ancient Egyptians and their way of life. The highlight of the tour was King Tutankhamen’s display, including the four Russian-doll style boxes that contained three sarcophagi, all inlaid with 24-carat gold. And, of course, his famous headpiece. The actual mummy is held in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, which we would visit later in the trip. King Tut is not famous for his prowess as a pharaoh, as he was very young and only reigned for 10 years, but for the fact that it was the first “untouched” tomb still containing all his treasures. And given the amount of riches found in the tomb, we could only imagine what was buried with more powerful pharaohs such as King Ramses. By the end of the tour we were pretty knackered, and there was just enough time to head back for a shower and to pack our stuff before heading out to catch the overnight train to Aswan.

The train was a welcome surprise, given the horror stories I’ve heard about trains in the Middle East and Asia. We had a luxurious sleeping compartment for two, which opened into the girls’ compartment; a little basin and towels; and air-con! Dinner was an airline style meal served not long after departure, and was surprisingly good. The bed was even more comfortable than the one in the first hotel, and the rocking of the train eventually sent me to sleep, though not without dreams of derailment whenever I sensed us accelerating during the night!

Tags: cairo museum, camel, pyramid, sphinx, train

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