All the silent stones in the desert.
 
All of the silent stones in the desert called us from afar.  Ever since we stumbled upon this peculiar thing called possibilities our daily conversations have been strewn with geographical place names that ring of allurement and then much, much more. Indeed, name dropping is surely easy and undoubtedly fun when you’re hungry and it’s not yet dinner time (which in France can be mightily late).  From around December or so, one of us started saying, “Egypt,” and the other, too, began to say, “Egypt,” as in:  “Where should we go on the next break?”  “Egypt!  Egypt?”  We did waver momentarily after our winter trip but then thought, well, never mind, we’ll be broke but we’ve got the memories.
 
Holga PhotosBW Photos
See Egypt in a different light:  It’s a whole new perspective on film. 
Be sure to check out the Holga and 35mm photos of our trip!
DAYS    Day 2A  Day 2B  Day 2C  Day 3  Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8
 
 
 
Welcome to Egypt, where are you from?
 
GIZA – 17 February 2009.  All of the silent stones in the dessert called us as we raced through the early-morning Paris streets.  A woman was out walking her little poodle and leaving a pile of mess for the subsequent array of workers rushing to the métro; a man out wandering aimlessly and took no interest in the constant humming the wheels of our suitcases made against the wet pavement.  We were determined to pack light and succeeded; we had meant to get in some sleep before departing for the airport and clearly failed.  The packed RER train to CDG was likewise populated with people who would rather be in their beds than on a musty train, pressed against strangers, some of whom took up additional spaces with packed bags.

Nez had a flash of brilliance when she decided that she could use her Navigo pass to get to the airport; Riot, who was not budgeted for transportation this month in Paris, had to purchase a ticket like everyone else.  No one checked our tickets on the RER, no one ever does, but when we got to the gates at Terminal 2, Nez’s turnstile gates would not open.  Aha, Riot awoke from his stupor, Nez’s pass only worked in zones 1-4.  The airport was in zone 5.  Tricky bastards!  So, we did what real and practical Parisians do in such a situation:  we squeezed through the turnstile gates together on one ticket.  We had meant well.  That would have been our explanation if anyone cared to ask.  No one did.
 

  The Mena House Oberoi, our home away from home, not more than a stone’s throw away from the Pyramids of Giza.

 

 
The flight was one long and mostly uninterrupted bout of sleep.  Riot woke up briefly to see Nez picking uninspiringly at her tray of airlines mysteries; Nez stirred restlessly as the loud Québécois around us hollered something or another about the upcoming Swiss ski trip.  The other highlight:  A brief detour into Geneva proper when Riot missed the transfer sign and instead walked to and through the immigration booth.  What followed was arguably the briefest visit the city had ever seen.  No one but us noticed.

When the plane finally landed at Cairo International the outside temperature was in the low double-digit Celsius; back at home, the thermometer hovered in the low single-digit.  We stepped out onto the plane ladder and met the cool and slightly damp Egyptian night.  “Ah,” we thought, “this is how non-freezing weather feels like.”  A short bus ride later – actually, the bus just made a big U-turn – we entered the terminal and met our meet-and-greeter from the Mena House.  He was a soft-spoken man with a limp handshake and a smart dark suit.  “Welcome to Egypt,” he uttered that common greeting that we were to hear again and again in the days to come.  But the first time seemed to be the most welcoming and most sincere.  He rushed to get our visas and pasted them into our passports.  He ushered us through immigration and custom and waited for a needed restroom stop.  Riot experienced his first baksheesh moment when the attentive restroom attendant ignored a local patron and doted on him instead, unrolling wads after wads of toilet paper for him to dry his hands.  Then, the man expectedly proffered his upturned palm.  Riot dug deep into his pocket to pull out what change in euros he had and handed over a 50 and a 5-centime coin to the man who had stopped smiling.  The man returned the 5-centime coin and pointed to the 50-centime and said, “One more.”  Riot had none and wanted to give no more and so he said so and left.  One Egyptian pound (abbreviated L.E. and roughly 7 L.E. to a euro) is the going rate for such a tip and as the guide book wisely noted, it’s useful to hoard small Egyptian bills and coins for precisely such a purpose.
 

  For a brief moment, it was just us and a lonely pyramid and nothing else.  That alone was worth the admission price to the Mena House.

 

 
Outside was Cairo and seemingly a large number of its 8 million or so citizens were either congregating at the arrival gate, the parking lot, or on the streets leading from the airport.  We suddenly developed a stronger appreciation for this meet-and-greet-and-transportation service.  At 30€, it was not cheap, but it was also not half bad even if the guidebook says that one could get a taxi for 10 or even 5€ if one was good at haggling.  We were OK with saving that delight for a later day.

Entering the small car, the driver said to us:  “Welcome to Cairo.”  We drove down a large boulevard flanked with sprawling governmental compounds with their requisite armed guards and guard towers and patriotic murals of military victories from the pharaonic eras right down to the present day.  The car was quickly mired in one big traffic jam and remained so for most of the way.  The meet-and-greeter made an apology for something he could not control and we said we understood.  He made some effort to point out various landmarks along the way:  the Fairmont Towers near the airport (“It just opened.”), a building inspired by a Hindu temple, the Citadel, etc.  Before reaching the Nile he hopped out and bade us farewell.  He was done for the night and there was no point tagging along with us any further.  We said we understood and similarly said our goodbyes.

The car remained quiet for a long while before we heard a voice from the front.  “Excuse me,” it was the driver, “please look at the pyramids.”  We looked out our windows in the direction of his pointing hand and saw two, maybe three, lit triangles rising from behind the Giza rooftops.  For both of us, it was an incredible wow moment.  There they were, the silent stones of the desert, saying a quick hello.  We were sure that we heard them say, “Welcome to Egypt.”  We felt giddy and special as though someone had left the lights on for our very own personal viewing.  Of course, that was not the case.
 

  A reflection of two tired travelers, two thousand miles from home, who had just come so close to a forty-five hundred-year-old wonder.

 

 
“Welcome to Egypt,” we were suddenly nudged from our trancelike state.  It was the driver again.  Ugh, thank you? we thought.  He started ticking off general facts about Egypt as he half-paid attention to the road and the people and cars darting about.  They were mostly things we had previously read in the guidebook and some that were outright contradictory, if not wrong.  We hummed and hahed along knowing that our hotel must be close by.  We appreciated the nice gesture but we were not interested in what he was clearly heading toward.  “I can show you all the sights,” he proposed in between recitation of facts about the pyramids.  While we could appreciate his effort and feel a fellowship with his attempt at a foreign tongue (endearingly, he used, “Can you see,” to say, “you can see,” as he pointed out sights of interest; in response, we kept answering questions that were not asked), we decided to pass at his proposition.  “I give you my card,” he insisted anyway as we reached the hotel.  “Give me a call,” he ended the night’s ride and conversation; all of us knew that it would not be the case.
 
 
 
 
  A most tantalizing photo in the hotel hallway:  This lucky traveler from around 1938 posed at the summit of Cheops with the Mena House in the background.  [Photo - Unknown]
 
  Seventy-one years on, another traveler considered her fortune at the very same hotel, as she marveled at the sight of Chephren and pondered what lay in store the following day.
 
 
The hotel was an oasis from the chaotic but real modern-day Cairo.  Through the imposing entrance, staffed by half-hearted security guards who checked the undercarriage of our cab with a mirror, we entered a compound rich in history, blessed with a priceless proximity to the Pyramids of Giza, and filled with people enjoying the fruits of a lifetime of toil or privilege.  After checking into our non-Pyramid view room, but in the historical section of the Mena House Oberoi nevertheless, (see Review) we had an excellent dinner at the Moghul Room (see Review).  Filled to the brim and immensely satisfied, we set about to discover the darkened grounds of the complex.  We passed by a large swimming pool, bottom-lit to reveal an ethereal blue that beautifully contrasted the amber hue of the lights from the hotel in the near distance.  Beyond that were the dim but distinct shapes of the pyramids and lurking discretely behind us in the dark was a security guard who had followed us since we left the main building.  We eventually shook the guard and made our way to the side of the hotel along meandering gardens and steps to the southeastern edge of the compound where over a short fence we had a clear view of the Pyramid of Cheops.  The lights that bathed this mountain of stones during the nightly Sound & Light Show were gone and it was just us and a pyramid in a quiet, one-sided moment of awe.  A brief, quiet moment that was disrupted by a voice from the other side of the short fence.

“Do you want to climb it?” said a man who had materialized out of nowhere.  “It is possible.”

Uh no, we thought, not at night and not with you.  Besides, we had read that the popular past time of scaling the Great Pyramid of Giza (a feat documented by a few faded black and white photographs adorning the hotel hallways) was now officially forbidden, and rightly so.

“No,” we responded, “not right now.”  We meant to say, not ever.

As we quickly walked away from our precious but now spoiled view, we heard a soon-to-be-familiar-and-tired refrain.

“Where are you from?”

 
DAYS    Day 2A  Day 2B  Day 2C  Day 3  Day 4  Day 5  Day 6  Day 7  Day 8
 
Go to Dine | Cairo  Go to Sleep | Cairo
 
 
Go!
 
Holla
 
 
 
 

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