I went to bed last night a little bit anxious and aggravated.
Having heard plenty about the chaos of Cairo, we had our guest house set up a driver from the airport, a nice, familial guy named Sherif. We started talking about plans for the trip, and I had already mentioned when booking that we were looking for somebody to take us around to all the pyramids, not just the ones at Giza. I had read reports in the Lonely Planet, about two years old, quoting getting a taxi in Cairo to take you around for the day for about 400 Egyptian Pounds (per person or for the car, depending on who you talk to), which comes to roughly $30/$60, depending on who you believe. Our car for the day, which we didn’t have time to negotiate ahead of time was… more. Which is fine, it had air conditioning, was in good shape and, as we would find out, Sherif seemed tied to the success of the hotel, so all well.
As we approached Dokki, he began mentioning plans for our second day, which I had not wanted to do via tour. Egyptian Museum, Coptic Cairo, Islamic Cairo, the Nile… all were mentioned as a one-day itinerary which, to me, was too much, especially considering I may just get lost in the Egyptian Museum on principle. We got to the guesthouse, confirmed the pyramid tour, and then I was tossing around worrying about hard sells the next day. Which I know are a part of Egypt’s tourism culture, but still, one can hope, on their vacation….
And that’s when I started to feel like a douche because the world spins on in spite of what I want on a vacation, and people trying to make a buck in tourist zones don’t have a lot of the privileges that most travellers have.
I’ve started off with that long disclaimer to let you know that today was absolutely one of the best days of my life and that’s including the hassle and hustle that came with it.
We did breakfast at the Costa Coffee across from us (not too adventurous yet) before returning to the guest house for sun protection, since shade today would be at a premium. Sherif picked us up and drove us to Giza, telling us along the way about scams to avoid, who to listen to, how to negotiate a camel or horse ride if we wanted one, and basically being a travel sage. He asked us if we wanted to see papyrus being made which can be code to “there’s a guy I know selling papyrus”, but he immediately dropped that when we said no, which gained him huge amounts of points. We were driven up to Giza ready to tackle the pyramids!
At which point, we get dropped off in front of a stable belonging to a friend of his who was going to have a “horse show” (like, Show N Tell?) to tell us about renting horses and camels.
For those who have been reading since Morocco a couple of years ago, and who remember the Tangier post specifically, you know I’m not the biggest fan of “exit/enter through my friend’s carpet shop” tactics. Daina later told me he literally heard betrayal in my voice when I looked at Sherif and asked “Why does there have to be a show, Sherif? What is this show?” He gave me a bit of an odd look, maybe a bit sheepish, and said “If you don’t want, you don’t have to”, and explained that he was parking here so we could go to the pyramids.
So, we listened to the “show”, which was a short “show”, because the guy running the “show” decided to quote us $100 USD to rent horses or camels today, with zero wiggle room for negotiating, so we walked away. On the way, a few other people approached us and I was still reeling from the “show” drop off, so it too me a while to get my negotiating bearings down. One guy drove his horse carriage real close to me, to which I joked that I was “being triggered” by his horse, which was super funny to me because I don’t like horses, and not at all funny to him because he doesn’t know that and I doubt he knows what “triggered” means. We finally worked out a price with a local camel guy which was considerably less that $100 (it came out to about $20 a person, which was higher than I wanted, but actually not too far off, more on that later) and we were off to see the pyramids.
After figuring out how to move and control my camel (named Rambo, Daina’s was Casanova), everything else sunk away.
We started our approach to the smallest pyramid, that of Menkaure, and the first thing that stuck out was the lack of people there. Egypt was hit hard by the 2011 Revolution, subsequent revolution, and various attacks, plus the instability in nearby Syria has spilled into the Sinai and the Western border near Libya has been considered off-limits. Long story short, fear has caused crowds to dwindle, and the tourist industry is suffering. Considering how the Pyramids had made plenty of “Disappointing Because of the Crowds” lists I’ve read, seeing how barren the site of put everybody’s hustle into perspective.
We kept the camel ride going towards Khafre’s pyramid and, even though we had about 20 minutes left in our negotiated 1 1/2 hour, we decided we would get off (because camels are hard to ride) and paid our guide a bit extra (because why not). From there, we did our stroll of the area and definitely found the front of the pyramid complex, a large-but-still-empty parking lot with the remainder of the tourists and a lot of Egyptians looking for something to do.
Now, amidst the freaking glory of Khufu (Cheops’) Great Pyramid, we got splashes of the desperation from some of the locals. After the introductory “Where are you from?”, “Nice beer (meaning beard), you look Egyptian” and “Nice tattoo” (I was in a t-shirt today), we’d get people asking us if wanted another camel, to which we said “we’ve been on one for over an hour”. People mostly backed off, but several followed up with “Okay, thank you, have a nice day, tell everybody that Egypt is safe.”
As we made our way down to Cheops’ Solar Boat, and eventually to the Sphinx, that rang true. There were a couple of unintentionally funny touts hanging around. One guy yelled at me “Look, there is the Sphinx” to which I shot back in a somewhat-silly manner “WHERE???” He eagerly pointed “THERE” before his girlfriend (who was working a souvenir stall with him) hit him in the leg a few times with a “no, he’s not serious” look on her face. There was also the guy who asked us where we were from and, after responding Canada, asked us if we were from Melbourne or Sydney. I could have let it pass, but I didn’t and replied “That’s Australia. For Canada, you want to say Toronto, Montreal, maybe Vancouver. I just want you to get that right next time, okay? That’s a big mistake to make.” Daina said the guy looked legit embarrassed, though I was already in “walk-away from touts” mode, so I didn’t notice.
What I did notice was the sign outside the pyramids, which had raised the official camel and horses rental rate (there is one) from the 35 EGP for a half hour from years ago to 100 EGP.
So, overall, we were off by 100 EGP, which was about six or seven dollars. Which puts it into a little bit of perspective.
The rest of the day was equally spectacular, with a few fun touts sprinkled through the way. We went to Saqquara to see the Step Pyramid of Djoser, the first attempt at pyramid building in Egypt, where a man named Habib appeared out of nowhere three times to give us a “tour” and show us the Noble’s Tombs (which were pretty well marked). Memphis was uneventful for touts and, aside from the giant statue of Ramses II, whose twin is going up in the Grand Egyptian Museum, whenever that opens, was mildly uneventful in general.
Darshur features one fully failed attempt at Pyramid building (the Black Pyramid, which had collapsed in on itself due to its mud-brick construction), a half-failed attempt (the Bent Pyramid, where the angles of construction were changed midway to avoid collapse) and the first real pyramid of Egypt, the Red Pyramid, which was covered in red granite. That pyramid need our day in the best and most insane way possible.
We chose not to enter the Great Pyramid at Giza due to the price (300 EGP per person) and due to the fact that, aside from being inside, there’s nothing to see. Entry to the Red Pyramid is free with admission, and holy mother of claustrophobia, if you don’t like tight spaces, this is either going to help you get over your fears or crush your soul a bit.
The descent is steep, black where lights are missing, steep where steps are loose or missing, and tight if you’re an adult human. It took four and a half sweaty minutes to get to the bottom, and the same to get back up, and it was breathtaking, in that I was mildly terrified of the space, random noises of other people, including children, and my breath was taken away. I could not have given the guy minding the site 5 EGP as tip, but it actually felt good doing it, mostly because it took away from how terrified I felt.
At Darshur, Sherif asked for pictures of us with the car and the hotel name to put on Booking.com, to try and drum up more business, to which we happily agreed. Who knows if the pictures will be any good, but we’ll let you know when we know.
We drove back to Cairo and Sherif, who I think I had given too hard a time at the start of this, was lovely. He showed us pictures of his baby and invited us to his home (which we politely turned down because we were both dirtier and smellier than we had been in a while), took us to Giza Station to buy overnight sleeper train tickets (which I couldn’t do because I had no US cash, they didn’t look like they were set up for credit and the guy serving me kind of walked away midway) and was basically a gem. We got his cell if we need more driving, and I’m sure he’ll be seeing us off to the train in a few days. Fantastic dinner at El Sit Hoseyna, where I learned macaroni and cheese with fried chicken is an Egyptian thing, and then, rest.
So today was bananas, but so good. One of my major life items is checked off my list, and it was worth every Pound, moment, drop of sweat, hassle, what have you. If my trip ended today, I would still tell everybody I know to come to Egypt. This place is magic.