Friday, 29 January 2010

Carry On Up The Nile

Ever since I was a young child, I had always wanted to visit the pyramids in Egypt. When I was old enough to visit London on my own, I would spend most of the day in the Egyptian section of the British Museum, peering down into the glass display-cases which housed the wrapped mummies, like generations of children before me.

One day, I decided that I would actually go, and booked myself a flight to Cairo for Christmas, stopping at Athens for one night on the way. I had read everything I could about the Great Pyramid of Cheops on the Giza Plateau, and the more I read, the more fascinated I became. The facts, figures and fiction about this astronomically vast structure had captured my imagination as it had for countless others through the years, including Herodotus, the world's first historian. I threw the 'I Ching' about it (as a lot of us did in those days), and it came up with 'Endurance'.

Arriving at the airport at night, we all stepped out and onto the tarmac, and the air was laden with the musky smell of the African continent. I got into the first taxi I saw and simply asked him to take me to a hotel, so of course I was badly ripped off, paying a huge sum for a small room, and another huge sum for toast in the morning, to which was added another huge sum for jam to spread on it.

The bus to the pyramids was easy to catch, as it's number was 888. In arabic numerals, 8 is written as an triangle, so the bus had a pictorial depiction of it's destination on the front - three little pyramids. I began to learn that - unless you tender exact money - it was very difficult to get any change. Tourists were expected to pay at least 5 times as much as the locals, and quite rightly, but I was beginning to spend about 15 times as much without realising.

I made my way across the hot, dusty landscape, and found a wooden shed where entrance tickets to the pyramid were to be purchased. When you stand at the foot of the largest pyramid, it's pure, geometric shape and the fact that it is so absolutely enormous, means that you have no real sense of scale, and many people leave it feeling disappointed. You have to be about 5 miles away from it to grasp it's true size and, in a short while, I was to be about twice that distance away, although I did not yet know this.

I sat down briefly in the desert sun, and became aware of an Egyptian on horse-back who had trotted over to me. Looking down, he asked, "English?" This became a frequently asked question, as they had just reopened the border between Israel and Egypt, and everyone thought I might be the first Israeli they had encountered since the 7 day war. They all seemed disappointed that they were unable to give me a good kicking on the grounds of my nationality alone.

"Yes", I answered.

"Tally Ho! Tally Ho!" he bellowed in response.

He then asked me where I had stayed the night before, and how much I had paid. When I foolishly told him, he whistled through his teeth, and told me that he would take me to a hotel for £3 a night, as soon as I had finished visiting the pyramids. I asked where this hotel was, and he pointed to the horizon of the vast stretch of desert in the opposite direction of Cairo, and said he would wait for me to emerge from the Great Pyramid.

Arriving at the make-shift entrance - a hole blasted into the side with gunpowder many years ago - I was told by a group of locals to wait for the party already inside to come out. I knew that these 'guides' were just the usual rip-off merchants, so I took no notice of them, as I had quickly come to realise that all their threats and shouted warnings came to nothing in the long-run.

I will not recount my experiences or impressions of the two chambers inside, as there are so many other documented descriptions and pictures, that another would be superfluous. Suffice it to say that - by employing the same tactics as I did at the entrance - I managed to spend about half an hour alone in the King's Chamber, soaking up the atmosphere, and staring at the walls which were illuminated by a single, 60 watt light bulb strung from the high ceiling. I climbed into the 'sarcophagus' for a well-earned rest. When they asked Napoleon Bonaparte what happened during his short period alone in the King's Chamber, he replied that they would not believe him if he told them. Sadly, I think you would believe me, so I won't bother either. Maybe I am just not destined to be an Emperor.

After about 2 hours, I made my way back down the colossal, forty-five degree angled, granite-lined shaft, and back into the blinding sunlight. There on the outside, waiting for me as promised, was the man on his horse, but this time he had another saddled horse with him. This was to be my transport for the next few days as - for want of a Land Rover - it was the only way we could get to the 'hotel' in the desert without walking.

The 'hotel' turned out to be the main barracks for the Cairo Secret Police, and it's caretaker supplemented his income by renting out the odd bunk to hapless, lone, male tourists, and I had fallen into this category nicely. The man with the horse was a dragoman who made a great deal of money by renting out horses and camels to hapless tourists, as well as regular, impromptu camel-races in the plateau, where large amounts of money change hands as bets amongst the other dragomen.

It was easy to spot a pair of Secret Policemen as they wandered about in town, looking for innocent students to arrest, as - unlike everyone else in the 100 degree heat - they wore thick, tweed overcoats and woolly bobble hats. Out in their desert home, however, they wore a casual military uniform, and travelled about in the backs of 10 ton, open trucks, shouting obscene suggestions to me as they passed. I had more chat-up lines from bearded men then, than I have ever had before or since, as homosexuality seemed to be a necessary evil amongst unmarried men, and not just a biological trait. As a young man traveling on his own, I was just asking to get my arse pinched by every tour-guide, and pinched it was. Here is a typical conversation that I had with a large man, whilst seated on the bank of the Nile, trying to enjoy the scenery:



"Very good. English very good. Margaret Thatcher very good."

"Yes." (you had to be careful of the Secret Police, and be prepared to lie)

"You have a cigarette for me?"


"You want to buy hashish - only ten pounds?" (holds up a huge lump of hash worth about two pounds)


"Ok, five pounds."


"Ok, for you, three pounds."


"Ok, my friend, two pounds."

"No." (puts the hashish back into his jellaba)

"You want me to fuck you?"

"No." (he looks genuinely affronted by this refusal)

"Why not? It's good for you!"

Over the next few days spent on horseback with the dragoman's creepy son (who made similar suggestions to the above on a regular basis), I experienced every weather condition except snow as I traveled around the desert, looking for and at ancient ruins like Saqara, and I have photographs of the pyramids, drenched with rain and under a grey-black sky, like I was when I took them. On one dark night, I made my way back to the desert barracks in fog so thick, that I had to rely on the horse to negotiate the narrow tracks between the steep excavations beneath the pyramids. It bolted in panic and hit a large rock, bringing us both down on the stony ground. It didn't help that I had just had dinner with the dragoman, and 'pudding' was several pipes of hashish.

It took me pretty much all of the three weeks I was there to get over the culture-shock, having left Europe for the first time, but I never managed to get my head around the way in which a blatant attempt to fleece me of all my money would suddenly and imperceptibly turn into a genuine display of hospitality from these people. I was attacked by fundamentalists twice - one of whom tried to smash in my skull with a large rock - but was saved by ordinary passers by, rather than the Secret Police.

On my return to Cairo, following another wonderful but hair-raising trip to Karnak, - involving a knife-fight between two waiters in my mud-brick, Luxor hotel, as the all-male staff were serving Christmas dinner, whilst an Arab Santa looked on in glee - I stayed in the famous 'Windsor Hotel' for a bit of respite from the chaotic streets outside. This old hotel still maintained an air of faded grandeur, together with all the customs of a bygone imperial age. If you left your shoes outside your door at night, for instance, you would find them in the morning, black and shiny - ruined by the application of of some sort of coloured varnish which proved impossible to remove or wax over.

I noticed that there was no soap in the shower of my room, so I called reception to tell them. The conversation went as follows:

"This is room 101"

"I know."

There is no soap in my room."

"I know." (long pause)

"Will you send some soap up please?"

"There is no soap."

"What am I supposed to do?" (long pause)

"Just a minute." (He puts the phone down, and 15 minutes later, there is a knock at the door. A boy stands there, holding a tiny bar of pre-used soap, and I take it. He waits for a tip and I close the door on him and return to the shower. I run the shower, and - 10 minutes later - there is still cold water coming out of it, so I go back to the phone)

"This is room 101 again."

"I know."

"There is no hot water in my room."

"I know." (long pause)

"When will there be hot water in my room?"

"Tomorrow." (he puts the phone down, and I go back and have a cold shower).

I started this post with the intention of creating an edifying, personal account of a visit to the pyramids, but look where we are now. I had also promised Heather that I would make it warm and cosy, but the temptation of spicing it up with attempted murder, sexual depravity and cold showers was too much for me, especially since - in this case - it is all true. Three weeks of anguish, punctuated with visits to spectacular archeological sites. It was what you might call an informative experience which I nervously laugh about now, all these years later.


  1. I am much more amused reading this account than the warm and cosy version..

  2. Thank you Maiden. I thought you might. As I was writing this account, I became struck by the huge amount of detail that I was forced to leave out, as something outrageous was occurring pretty much every minute of the day, and half the night. At the Luxor Christmas dinner with the knife-fight, for instance, I spent the whole evening talking to a young, British teacher of English at Cairo University before we both realised we had shared a house with each other in Whitstable a few years before. I was held by armed (machine-guns) security in the lobby of a hotel as a motorcade containing Israeli officials stormed in for a meeting. I found out - years later - that a beautiful girlfriend I had in Bath was in that motorcade as a guest of the Prime Minister.

    I was picked up by a well-dressed Secret Policeman (wearing an English style, tweed suit) and actually had to outrun him in a crowded market to escape. Then their were the whip-fights between rival coachmen, conducted over the heads of passing tourists. I had a serious offer of marriage to the sister of a Sudanese prostitute in Alexandria... etc. etc.

  3. Oh what a trip! Please feel free to write more travel tales...I am very interested now to see if you plan to take up Heather's Kreativ Blogger award and enlighten us with 7 revealing things??

  4. I didn't realise that I was supposed to reveal 7 things, Maiden! I must have misunderstood her post. Maybe I'll put up 7 revealing photos... there again, maybe I won't. Best stick to words...