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Egypt: Climbing the Pyramids

13th October 1992, Cairo

Finally! It's begun! I flew into Cairo on October 12th and met Rich, who's been traveling on the Continent for the last six weeks, at the Nile Hilton at midnight. Sat there and caught up with Rich until 3:45 A.M. when Sarah, our flatmate from New Zealand, arrived. I booked her her ticket, but didn't get a chance to fully investigate her ticket as much as I should have. It turns out her flight left London and flew to Bucharest (Romania) then after a layover she boarded a second flight Bucharest to Cairo - Whoops! Sarah's been a good sport about my mix up - we have been flatting in London together for the last year so we've grown close enough to overlook things like my not really knowing what I was talking about when I told her to pay for her Air Romania flight before I had my ticket.

Sarah had evidently had a few bottles of rum to drink with a couple of Australians during the two hour lay over in Romania and she was definitely showing the effects of a binge. She sat and chatted with us in the Hilton for a few minutes before excusing herself to go to the women's loo to be sick. Once she was finished we got a cab outside, complete with a driver who didn't speak much English and absolutely refused to take us to the hotel we'd requested. We ended up driving all over Cairo with our driver depositing us at various hotels that belonged to his brother or cousin or someone. They all wanted insane prices like US$30 per night, so we weren't going to have anything to do with them whatsoever. He finally dropped us off at a hotel we'd requested only after all three of us were screaming as loudly as possible at our driver. (Welcome to the Third World.)

He dropped us off outside this backpacker's place where we were met by yet another Egyptian dude. He led us into the elevator, sans door, and complete with skull and crossbones over the door stating that it would be detrimental to one's health if more than three people got into the elevator at one time. I guess the Egyptian guy couldn't decipher the 1 X 1 foot death symbol because he climbed into the elevator with us and tried to grope Sarah the entire ride up to the Fourth floor of the building. We got our room and laid down to sleep just as the first set of Islamic mosques was firing up their loud speakers to chant the day's first prayer. Our room wasn't bad - three beds, a fan and a balcony overlooking the street. Of course it was 5:00 o'clock in the morning so all I could spot was the rooster in the next building over. He looked as though he was ready to start a crowing.

14th October 1992, Cairo

Our first day in Cairo we headed over to the grand bazaar for the day, and the first thing that I noticed was that it exemplified everything I'd ever imagined about Egypt; the hustle and bustle, small back alleys full of spices and materials, the people selling their wares, and the tea boys making their way through the crowd delivering the merchant's their afternoon tea. I'd heard about the main market from Melinda, and now that I was there I was seeing the images she'd described to me during the months previous. We wandered through the throngs of people - gawking at the women dressed in their robes (head to toe, showing only the eyes) while balancing a huge basket of vegetables or other items on their heads. We made our way into a small back alley which was solely full of spice sellers. The smell wafted down the narrow corridor and my nose couldn't distinguish one smell out of the fifty or so that I was inhaling. The Egyptian sellers kept putting small amounts of the spices in our hands to [MISSING TEXT HERE] smell.

The spice market in the grand bazaar (95K)

As Westerners here everyone knows we're not locals (obviously, nor could we even pretend to pass for one) so they'd call out to us as we walked by their stalls. Buy this, try that - it was coming from every direction. I can't say I was particularly disturbed by any of it, it was just so different from anything I'd ever experienced before. While we were walking around the city I noticed all the Egyptian men were staring at Sarah. Granted she's a 6 foot tall, beautiful Western woman walking down the street, and she turned a lot of heads. She was rather content to know that Rich and I were usually on either side of her so no Egyptian men could alter their paths of walking and "accidentally" bump into her and rub her chest. We did meet other women who'd had that type of problem, but not Sarah - she was in good hands.

The Egyptians were all generally very friendly. When we were looking for a monument or a certain street there's always be some man who'd come up to us and help us with the directions. The funny thing was that they'd always give us the directions, then, after they'd helped us, ask us to come visit their perfume shop "just down the street". It was always the same. The children there all wanted to practice their English, so sometimes when we would be walking down the street the kids nearby would scream "Hello!" at the top of their lungs. We'd just appease them and call Hi back to them. I know now as I write this that I was a bit nervous being there and wasn't going to be holding any conversations with anyone without a reason. As I traveled more and more and got used to being stared at I would talk to whoever was nearby; they would always be delighted to be able to practice their English.

15th October 1992, Cairo

We were all exhausted from going to bed at 4: 00 a.m. yesterday morning and from walking miles all over the Market that we crashed out at 9:00 p.m. last night to the incessant honking of the traffic on the street. Egyptian drivers love their horns, and I finally figured out that they use their horns instead of a turning signal. You see, if they're going to change lanes they'll just hold down the horn to inform the drivers in the lane to be merged into to tell them he's on the way and if you don't want a dent in your car you should make way. We had planned to wake up rather early this morning - big plans - so when 4:30 a.m. rolled around Rich got up and tried to wake Sarah and I up. His nudging didn't get us out of bed, although both Sarah and I were awake, so he walked over to our balcony doors and fully opened them up to the world. I looked outside and could see the stars above, and the one thing that struck me was that we could now hear the mellow chanting/singing of the morning prayer. Both Sarah and I were awe struck, for we'd been unable to hear the prayer before the doors were opened, but once they were opened we could hear the singing. It was so moving and so peaceful. It was really pleasant to hear this man singing, for they usually give the mic to the one who's usually tone deaf. Sarah and I listened to the prayer for five minutes or so, then we rousted ourselves out of the bed, for we had a date with a pyramid that morning.

Ever since I met Melinda, our Californian friend who has traveled the world over, I remember her telling me a story about her traveling with her family and actually getting the chance to climb the pyramids outside Cairo. I'd asked her to tell me the story a few times, so with that information files up in my brain, my group of three decided to go out there and see if we could climb the pyramids as well. Technically it's forbidden to climb the pyramids, but if you pay the right guy you might get away with it - we were out to try our damnedest. Down to the street and got a cab out to Giza where the pyramids sit. As we approached the main gate these two young boys, about 10 and 12 years respectively, came out of an alley and flagged the taxi down and told us the pyramids were closed. Rich asked if they could guide us to the pyramids and the boys said it was possible. We got out and followed the boys down the alley into this courtyard where one of the boys ran to retrieve his father. The father appeared and explained to us that we had to rent his horses to ride over to the pyramids because they were too far to walk to on foot. He said he'd lead us there through the locals' village - the back way - then he'd take care of the guards while we climbed to the top of Cheops, the largest pyramid of the three. We mounted his horses and started riding through the local village. The sun was just beginning to come up, so when we ascended this hill and started down the road behind the village I could see the Sphinx sitting mysteriously through the haze across the valley. We were almost to the base of the pyramid when Sarah's horse lost its footing and fell down. I turned around to see Sarah picking herself up off the asphalt, rubbing her bum. She was a bit startled, and suffered a bruise on her thigh but lived through it. Luckily we were there, at the base of the largest pyramid, Cheops, so the rest of us dismounted and we haggled with the father regarding how much we'd pay him to bribe the guards. We agreed on EŁ50 (US$15), paid the dude then as we walked towards the pyramid's base the father explained to us that we had to leave our small packs on a stone about a quarter of the way up. He said it was dangerous for us to climb up with our packs down because they might cause us to fall off when we were coming down. Good reason. Off we went, each climbing up the first base stone, each which was a little taller than my waist. Yes, we were really climbing one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Cheops Pyramid (notice the small people at its base) 122K

We climbed up an eight of the way up and I could hear the guards screaming "Hello" "Hello". I looked down and could see the guards running towards the corner of the pyramid where we'd started our climb. I watched the father figure we'd paid the money to run over to the guard and give him some cash then walk away. When the second guard started screaming I saw our man run over and slip him some cash to be quiet. Evidently it worked - they didn't bother us again. Climbing to the top wasn't particularly hard, just nerve racking because if you took one wrong step you were history. It was incredibly foggy that morning so I couldn't see the ground after a point, but every once in a while the clouds would part and I could see the ground. having a mild fear of heights didn't help, for once I could see how high up we really were I just made me more nervous. When we were a quarter of the way up we couldn't see the ground. The sun was coming up as we were climbing to the top so I stopped and took photos of the sun while clinging to the side of the structure. Amazing experience - where I was, what I was doing, everything. Rich had climbed above and was soon out of sight. Sarah and I were climbing together and about three fourths of the way up we rested and as we were both a bit nervous about climbing we actually discussed whether or not we should climb the entire way to the top. We were nervous from the height and were beginning to wonder about our climb back down - more like whether or not we were going to make it at all. I assumes Rich was already at the top, the sun was coming up, it looked stunning, so Sarah and I persevered and climbed the last bit to the top. Plus if I didn't go all the way I would never have heard the end of it from Rich - not for the rest of my life. (He did mention that later). Just as we arrived at the top the sun rose up above the cloud layer in the valley so all we could see was our pyramid, the sun & white clouds. It looked like Heaven itself. We sat at the top for a while, discussed whether we were going to die climbing back down, and took pictures with the other pyramid in the background. The clouds parted just enough so we could see the tip of the next pyramid over with a sea of clouds surrounding.

Pyramid in the Clouds

After a cigarette and more photos we started our descent down. Our guide, who didn't seem to have it in him to guide us up the pyramid, had explained to us in intricate detail how to climb down without killing ourselves. He said we had to sit down on each stone and slide off it to the next stone below. The reason we couldn't take our packs was because on the way down the pack would have rubbed on the stone as we lowered ourselves and knocked us off balance and down to our deaths.

Fear of Climbing Down

The climb back down was actually almost easier than the climb up. We found out later that we'd climbed the equivalent of a 48 story building (450 feet high) - on the outside. It was an incredible experience; a photo of the "Climbing is forbidden" sign was of course mandatory.

We wandered around to the other pyramids and over to the Sphinx waiting for the morning haze to burn off so we could get some pictures of the monstrosity we'd just conquered. While waiting, and being the only tourists out there at 7:00 a.m., we had to beat off the camel jockeys with a stick. There was one jockey in particular who kept trying to convince us to go for a ride on "Daisy & Moses", Mrs. camel and Mr. mule.

Daisy & Moses

The haze finally lifted enough for us to take photos, then we walked to the main gates to get a cab back to Cairo. We'd been at the pyramids since 5:30 that morning and all had had enough of them for one day. The main gates were crawling with Western tourists, a majority who appeared to be Americans - each mounted atop one of those camels. The place was crawling with tourists and touts - utter chaos. it was a definite change from the serenity we'd experienced all morning when we had the pyramids all to ourselves.

We made it back to our hotel for a sleep then wandered around the city for a while, eventually making it to the top of Cairo tower for a birds eye view of the city. Boring. It was getting hot so we headed beck to the hotel to sit out of the heat of the day and that's when we had our next adventure in Third World accommodation. Our hotel was on the fifth floor and we had to use this elevator that technically shouldn't have been operational in the first place. Posted outside the elevator door is a big sign with a skull and crossbones painted on it stating "Danger. No more than 3 persons max". O.K. so we were taking our lives in to our own hands every time we entered this elevator, but when your legs are aching from climbing a pyramid and it's hotter than hell you aren't going to concern yourself with a rickety elevator. There was already someone waiting for the elevator so Rich said he'd stay behind while Sarah, I and the German, who'd been waiting went up first. We climbed in and hit the '5' button and the elevator creaked and groaned before beginning its descent. Due to the non-existent standards of Egyptian building safety codes the elevator had no internal door so as we were going up we'd look out this open space onto each floor. If I'd so chosen I could have touched each of the floors as they went past the open door. The only time there was any sort of safety feature to keep the passengers in the ascending box was right when we'd come upon each floor. There was a free standing door (not attached to anything mounted on the floor) that the elevator would line up with once one had reached their destination. I gathered the door was more for keeping people waiting on the floors out of the elevator shaft than keeping the passengers in the elevator. These doors on each floor were self locking and only unlocked when the elevator lined up perfectly so the passengers could exit. These elevator doors are only about 6 feet high, and above that there's just open space where the elevator shaft is, leaving about 8 feet open space up to the ceiling. On our way up the elevator grunted once again then got stuck on the 4th floor just above one of those locked elevator doors. Wonderful. We pushed all the buttons on the panel (including the alarm button which didn't work) trying to get the thing started again, but no dice. There were two switches on the panel, but we didn't rush to try them - we'd talked about them earlier and came to a conclusion like if we switched that the cable in the ceiling holding the elevator up would disengage and we'd go plummeting down to our deaths. I suppose it was kind of ironic that now I needed to use the switch. Both switches didn't work so now Sarah, the German and I stood there trying to figure out what to do. Of course the elevator had to stop behind one of the protective doors (locked because we were about three feet to high to engage the unlock mechanism) but not high enough to make it easy for us to climb out (easy being the operative word). Virtually anywhere else on the way up there would have been no problem getting out but now we were boxed in behind the bloody door.

We ended up climbing through the three foot space above the elevator door, touching things that haven't been cleaned since the building was built - about the time the Koran was written. I boosted Sarah up, the German boosted me up, then he boosted his guitar up - more important than himself. The adept little kraut climbed over the top of the door just as Rich came running up the stairs to see what was taking so long. Rich had a good giggle when he figured out what we'd had to endure with this Egyptian elevator.

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