A howling swarm of beggars followed us—surrounded us—almost headed us off. A sheikh, in flowing white burnoose and gaudy headgear, was with them. He wanted more baksheesh[a tip or bribe depending on your perspective]. But we had adopted a new code—it was millions for defense, but not a cent for baksheesh. I asked him if he could persuade the others to depart if we paid him. He said yes—for ten francs. We accepted the contract, and said:“Now persuade your vassals to fall back.”
He swung his long staff round his head and three Arabs bit the dust. He capered among the mob like a very maniac. His blows fell like hail, and wherever one fell a subject went down. We had to hurry to the rescue and tell him it was only necessary to damage them a little—he need not kill them. In two minutes we were alone with the sheikh, and remained so. The persuasive powers of this illiterate savage were remarkable.
135 years later, during my pleasure excursion around the world on a bicycle, I visited the Great Pyramids of Egypt. It is a time when America’s “War on Terrorism” occupies the globe and the cultural gap between the West and the Middle East—including the Egyptian Arabs—seems to be widening into a chasm. The howling swarms of beggars still exist almost unchanged except they have evolved their trade into an art form as if Twain had inspired them with tales of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Simply arriving at the Pyramids of Giza is a challenge: On my first attempt, I was befriended by one of the new-age con-artists, an “amigo falso” as the Latin Americans call them. He shepherded me to the “government stables” promising a cheap tour of the pyramids on camelback. My false friend and the tour guides were in cahoots and their sales pitch included every low and high ball in the book. I promptly feigned a migraine and left. On my second attempt, I succumbed to a relapse of Egyptian giardia while waiting hours for the bus which being labeled in Arabic I had probably missed several times. Finally, I rely on my steel horse and risk Cairo’s lawless roads. I arrive shortly after sunrise just as the gauntlet of hucksters, panhandlers, touts and merchants begin formation. Acting uninterested so as not to invite solicitation, I ride past the piles of plastic pyramids, armies of Anubis, masks of Tutankhamen, litters of sphinxes and all the other paraphernalia of ancient Egypt resurrected by its children; and past the modern usurpers of culture: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Kodak Film, Lay’s Potato Chips, Cadbury Chocolate, Nescafe, Marlboro cigarettes, bottled water, toilet paper and their various generic incarnations. I hitch my bike to a post near the armed guards and enter the side gate.
To my amazement, I have circumvented the hordes of tourists—I am alone. I climb atop the wall before the Sphinx, like a tiny mouse just about to be pounced upon, and ponder the riddles of life. In the distance, the jagged form of the Great Pyramid of Cheops emerges as the Saharan sun evaporates the spirit of the Nile. Mesmerized by the new mystery, I leave the brooding sphinx, cross the road and tred through the rose-colored desert. I expected to be swimming in sand, however my feet crunch through gravel and rocks and occasionally wade through small pools of sand. I spiral around the Great Pyramid—the only surviving Ancient Wonder of the World—until I can see the grain of the rock like the whorls on a giant’s toe. And, as the sun rises behind the apex of the pyramid shrouding it in a sparkling halo, I too wonder about the civilization that devoted its entire resources to building a mountain of rock in the desert. Then the sun passes the peak and my retinas explode like a fireworks display. At any moment, I half expect, half hope the pyramids to funnel magical, cosmic energy into my soul…. Except, a policeman beckons me. Apparently, I have crossed an invisible line or broken an unwritten law. But after consultation, he only offers his image in exchange for baksheesh. “Or,” he rubs his fingers together, “you climb.” He gestures to the top.
The spell—whether it be spiritual energy or just wishful thinking—is broken. I expend most of my efforts for the rest of the day trying to keep the money in my pockets. For instance, even circumnavigating the Great Pyramid I can’t escape being harangued by Mohammed and his camel, Charlie Brown. Not until I hide among some guards is Mohammed forced to leave when they flog Charlie Brown into a trot. Several hours later, Mohammed, along with his nephew, Ali, corner me in the Western Cemetery, out of sight of the guards. Finally, I concede—”For the experience,” as they say—and negotiate an average sum for a one-hour tour through the desert atop Charlie Brown. I am sure Ali contrives to make it as hot, boring and bone-jolting as possible, stopping every few minutes with pleas for baksheesh, until I am happy to jump off the flatulent camel (Egyptian music according to Ali) after only thirty minutes and limp bow-legged back through the desert to Cheops.
Later, I am separated from more Egyptian pounds when an American woman purchases the last 19 tickets to enter the tomb of the Great Pyramid. “Please, I just need one ticket. I’ve come a long way and I must leave tomorrow,” I say.
“I’ve got a tour waiting. They came all the way here on a bus.” She points to a first-class, air-conditioned tour bus with a television and toilet.
“But I just rode my bicycle most of the way here from San Francisco,” I plead, but she simply walks away counting her tickets. The guard at the ticket booth winks at me. Some magic must still be left in the air because a little baksheesh materializes another ticket.
Only once do I gratefully pay baksheesh to a guard, when for a moment we are alone in the Great Pyramid, he photographs me lying in the red-granite sarcophagus with my wrists crossed over my heart just like King Cheops had over 5000 years ago. I nearly fill the length and width of the sarcophagus. The sarcophagus used to contain the coffin and the mummy of King Cheops. I always thought the pharaohs to be gigantic because weren’t they, in fact, gods? In reality, they were mere mortals dwarfed by a plebian, corn-fed American.
I successfully avoid 23 schemes to lighten my wallet. However, in the end, when my mind is dulled by heat and thirst, I am trapped: As I enter the Eastern Cemetery an official-looking Egyptian guides me towards the Queen’s Tomb. I stand in the queue and when it is my turn he politely asks to see my ticket and then motions for me to enter. “Hurry. We are closing soon.” I descend a small shaft that angles steeply into the earth for about 25 meters and opens into the square tomb. The room along with its cubicles and shelves is carved out of one huge stone. It is an unremarkable experience until the power fails and I am temporarily trapped in the tomb with the imaginary ghosts of ancient Egypt. I bumble my way towards the light and up the shaft fearing I’ve been forgotten. I barely emerge before the Egyptian holding my ticket is walking briskly away. “Hurry. We are closing. The Tomb of the Engineer is this way.” I dash after him mainly to recover my ticket so that I may exit the park without hassle.
“Do you work here?” I ask suspiciously.
“Yes. We must hurry. We close in twenty minutes.” He is trying to distract me and I know his guided tour will cost me money but my eyes are weary of hunks of stone and my mind craves excitement. We stop at two square shafts ten meters deep that lead to some tunnels. “Secret passages,” my guide says. “This one leads to the Great Pyramid and this one to the Sphinx. Offerings of money, beads, scarabs, and food were thrown into the pits so the souls of the Kings may survive in the afterlife.” He leads me around a few more block structures. “The tombs of the slaves who built the pyramids. There were more than three-hundred-thousand slaves, working for thirty years.” A few more twists and turns. “This is it.” He disappears into a small hole, approximately 50 by 100 centimeters. Like the other tombs I visited the hole has been ripped through the stone walls by tomb robbers. I crawl through the hole, dragging my backpack behind me, mindlessly following my guide, Mohammed Ali, not to be confused with Mohammed or Ali the camel drivers. We jump down a meter into a small chamber behind an iron gate. Mohammed Ali puts his index finger over his lips and whispers, “This area is closed. Prohibited. But for you I make a special trip.”
I pause to analyze my predicament: Though I think of people like Mohammed Ali as hucksters, they think of themselves as businessmen because the prices are always agreed upon by both parties. I have heard few stories of thievery—which is punishable by having your fingers cut off—and no stories of violence—presumably with more heinous consequences. However, within the constraints of the law, it is an Egyptian eat Egyptian world. Survival is generally governed by power and money. For instance, power rules the apparently lawless roads. The largest, most powerful vehicle has the right of way. Smaller vehicles must move or be crushed. As for money, it governs the people. There are legions of Egyptians proposing, “Anything you want—papyrus, perfume—I can get. Very cheap. I have friend. Very nice.”
My guide waits patiently, his face is creased in a pleasant manner, his tummy bulges slightly, his arms show no veins or muscles. Nothing suggests that he is a very strong or evil man. I judge that I am the one with the advantage in size, strength, and money. Besides the ground is covered in footprints. I am not the first fool. “Come. It is not safe to stand by the gate,” my guide prompts.
Overconfident in my abilities, I follow him around the corner and down a few meters. On our right, a tunnel hewn through the stone leads to the bottom of the shafts I had peered down moments ago. “The engineer built this secret tunnel so that he could steal the sacrifices.” There is nothing to steal now but handfuls of sand and garbage. The super-secret tunnels illuminate our path and the clouds of dust we kick into the air. We follow a tunnel to the left and enter a small chamber containing five blocks of white granite with mummy shapes carved into them. They appear to be lidless coffins that used to fit into the rectangular holes in the floor. I am taller and wider than any of the blocks. The ceiling is low so we duck walk through the coffins, hop down another shaft and walk hunchbacked through a short tunnel and emerge in another small chamber. Coffins, including tiny ones for children, lie helter-skelter on the floor. I imagine they were heedlessly shoved around in a frantic search for treasure. The sarcophagus of the engineer is a large granite box recessed in the opposite wall. It is still covered with a granite lid ajar. I crawl through the coffins and peer inside the engineer’s last accomplishment. “The mummy,” my guide whispers. It appears to be a box full of dust and cow bones—I have seen thousands of cows in various stages of decomposition alongside the road that had failed to yield the right of way. In fact, I happen to know the mummy of the engineer is in the Cairo Museum. Still, it is a tantalizing thought to think that some of his dust remains. My eyes and nose burn from the dust; if anything remains of the engineer, I must have inhaled a teaspoonful.
There are still more catacombs beneath us. My guide permits me to go a little farther. “Just look. It is not safe,” he cautions. Shafts of light from mysterious sources crisscross the lower levels. The passages are flooded in dust—it seems as if over the millennia the tombs have filtered all the dust out of the Sahara. Slabs of stone have collapsed blocking some passages. And, even here a Coca-Cola bottle litters the ground.
When I return, my guide is sitting in a coffin and gestures for me to sit opposite him. I expect he will expound the history and mystery of the pyramids, but he merely begins the haggle, “How much is this worth to you?”
“You work for the pyramids. Why should I pay you anything?” I begin to stand, a bluff intended to lower the price.
He moves to block my exit and his pleasant wrinkles invert as he sternly commands me to sit. “I don’t work for the pyramids.”
With my ass nestled in the rounded mummy shape of one coffin and my feet in another, I suddenly feel as if I have desecrated the tomb. I curse myself and the ancient spirits of Egypt who have trapped me in the Tombs of the Slaves with a sacrilegious, greedy Arab. I imagine he has a friend hidden in one of the tunnels and that I will be clobbered and they will steal my money belt and camera. Or what if he refuses to lead me back to the surface so that he may run off before I alert the guards. I am reminded of my driving lessons with my mother. “Do you know why I am giving you driving lessons in the cemetery? Because if you kill yourself you won’t have far to go.” I am about to be buried among the slaves. I’ll probably be found in another 5000 years and displayed in the Cairo Museum as, “The Gullible Tourist. Circa 2002.”
After several minutes of negotiation, I convince him that I will reward him for his favors once I safely reach the surface. Of course, I am saving the option of running. He scurries out of the tomb and I must race to keep him in sight. I am tired and panicking; twice I bang my spine into the ceiling and once draw blood. I drag myself through the dust for the final few meters and pop out of the tomb like a prairie dog. I am covered in Giza-colored powder indistinguishable from the rocks. Or so I had hoped. In front of me, astride a camel, is a guard dressed in a ragged uniform, a rifle propped upon his shoulder and grinning like a Nile Crocodile, haphazard teeth whittled sharp by decay. His expression reads, “How much is a trip to an Egyptian jail worth?”
With a smile, I pay baksheesh to my self-appointed guide and protector and run into the desert and secret myself among the ruins. When the path is clear, I dash for the gates, unhitch my bicycle, run the gauntlet in reverse, ride through the chaos of Cairo—yielding to all vehicles larger than myself and knocking aside the pedestrians—and collapse in the sanctuary of my hotel. In retrospect, with a full tummy, hot shower, and soft bed, I am quite pleased with my misadventure.
Scott Stoll is on the road in Asia, about halfway through his attempt to bicycle around the world. For details of his trip visitwww.theArgonauts.com, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.