Don’t Pay the Camel Driver until You Get to the Pyramid
Guest Post by Traveler’s Bro
American travelers seeking to break through to the “real” Egypt may find themselves struggling to dispel Hollywoodized images of that ancient and mysterious land. Movie images are sometimes hard to relegate to the cutting room floor of your memory when you travel from the back lot to the real place.
When in 1974 my wife and I first entered the real Land of the Pharaohs (1955, Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins), we carried in our mind’s eye scenes from that and many other popular twentieth century films.
It was a good year for American travelers in Egypt. The Egyptians seemed happy to have Americans back in the country and not only because we were more generous with baksheesh (tips) than the Soviets visitors of the Nasser era had been. The natives told us the Russians had no sense of humor and weren’t friendly.
The Egyptian sense of humor was evident immediately to us on our taxi ride from the airport to our Cairo hotel. As he merged onto the two-lane highway to town, our cabbie snapped off his headlights. Whenever out of the mysterious black of the Egyptian night another taxi approached with its light doused, a game of chicken ensued to see who would turn on his lights first.
When I saw the ornate and sometimes working fixtures of our one and a half star hotel’s bathtub, I remembered wistfully Claudette Colbert sloshing around provacatively in her golden bathtub (almost) full of asses’s milk (Cleopatra 1933). The movie glamour began to fade somewhat in the light of the reality.
We soon encountered a Death on the Nile (1978, Peter Ustinov) as we were walking across the bridge to the “Hilton side” of town. The agonized groans of a camel that had been struck by a bus and was lying amidst a mosaic of blood and glass could be heard above the shouting of a dozen street lawyers who swarmed to advise the two drivers. No one seemed particularly interested in ending the suffering of Exhibit A, at least not till the case was settled.
At Giza the driver of our tour car reluctantly stopped at the Cheops so that I could get out and hire a camel for an exotic ride to Chephren, the next available pyramid. From high atop the dromedary in the clean, bright desert air, I began to feel like Lawrence of Arabia (Peter O’Toole 1962) and to wish I had a scimitar to swing defiantly above my borrowed turban. About this time my spine and stomach reminded me that there is nothing easy or romantic about riding a Ship of the Desert.
I wondered what Peter O’Toole would do in such a fix? Indeed, what would that other famous “Egyptian,” Anthony Quinn or even Omar Sharif [an actual Egyptian!] do? We held out for a while and finally, the owner shrugged at my mysterious refusal to bow to extortion and switched grumbling Alice back into action.
When we finally reached the bare and musty burial chamber of the Pharaoh Chephren, I thought I could detect an ominous rumbling among the shafts and chambers. Or was I just recalling that famous scene when the tongueless slaves and evil princess (Joan Collins in Land of the Pharaohs) are buried alive deep in her husband’s pyramid? Any traveler with a sense of adventure should review this terrifying scene prior to crawling into any ancient tomb.
As we post this, the latest “Pharaoh” of Egypt has departed Cairo, and the country is shaking itself alive as the people decide what direction to go into. To those ghosts that hover around the pyramids and tombs, this is a momentary blip in the life of an ancient land that will continue to draw travelers as it has since Herodotus’ visit in the fifth century B.C.
Huge thanks to Traveler’s Bro for this wry piece as dry as the camel’s natural habitat. He emerges from retirement to lecture on film and teach an occasional class in Fresno California. He is, as you can see, the writer in the family.
Thanks to Flickr.com for the pictures. Those photographers who share via Creative Commons are a blessing. Find out more about each of them by clicking on the picture to go to his or her collection on Flickr.