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The pyramid of King Khafre

CAIRO©

I reserved our room in Cairo through HotelsEgypt.com. Mr. Arnvid was our contact there. He politely suggested we hire a driver and guide to make the most of our visit. So instead of taking taxis everywhere I took him up on his offer and gave him a description of me so our guide could find us at the airport.

It was nighttime when we landed at the Cairo International Airport. Here we expected a high level of security. We were not disappointed. Through the planeís window we could see heavily armed soldiers mixed in with the ground crew. Our plane taxied over to a fortified zone where two other airliners were alreadying emptying their passengers into buses.

The buses brought us and hundreds of other people to Egyptian Customs. It was in a room the size of an airplane hanger and it already had ten long lines that weren't moving. This was a tense place.

I was stunned when I saw the crush of humanity in that room. Within one minute big Ahmed (pr: Ack-med) came over to me, warmly introduced himself as our guide, and I entrusted him with our passports. He left. I spent the next few minutes questioning what I did. Then he returned. Ahmed took us around everybody waiting in line to a guard who let us out the gate. We picked up our bags, and breezed through customs. On the way out the airport we walked through a regular looking shopping mall. We were the only people around.

Ahmed asked if he could use my passport to buy some alcohol at the mallís liquor store. He said, "Itís no problem". I said yes and offered to buy him something. He refused saying he was buying too much. He bought 2 cases of Heineken and 3 bottles of Johnny Walker Scotch.

Ahmed is a huge-wide young man. He has warmth and charm and is big like King Farouk was big. At about 300 lbs Ahmed remains the roundest man we saw the whole time in Egypt. So now Ahmed has a cart with our luggage, his liquor, and heís bustling to the exit through the bright deserted airport mall.

Lynne and I follow him to the exit. We go outside. Itís dark and Iím stunned again by a crowd of a couple hundred Egyptians - taxi drivers, guides, porters, relatives of travelers, etc., ALL CROWDED AROUND the exit door. They are waiting for customers or relatives. Soldiers with AK-47 sub-machine guns are posted right there to keep them outside. We are the first people coming out the door. They press forward. Ahmed plows into them and they move apart like he is Moses and theyíre the Red Sea. We follow Ahmed.

I can imagine me trying to get a taxi that night and itís not pretty. And if my guardian angel pushed me to hire a guide, our driver turned out to be a gift from Allah. That night, Sammie, in his Mazda mini-van left the airport and took us out into a chaotic, hair-raising, very high-speed traffic system. Like New York City with everyone taking amphetamines, the police on strike, and you share all roads with pedestrians and horse drawn carts. Plus cars create an extra lane or two by speeding down the dashed lines whenever traffic in the normal lanes slowed down. In the whole city of Cairo we saw just three red lights and very few crosswalks so pedestrians run across streets or walk down these same dashed lines. People drove with one hand on the horn. On our thirty-minute ride to the Helnan Shepherd Hotel we heard more honking and saw more fast lane changing than in my 35 years of driving on Philadelphiaís dreaded Schuylkil expressway. (Iím not kidding.) We sped by the little fish and sharks roared by us. Cairo was scary that night.

Cairo was awe-inspiring the next morning. This city of 12 million people worked. Traffic flowed wildly but smoothly. Food and weather were great. The pyramids were more beautiful on a scale greater than I imagined. The Sphinx really was carved from one big rock. Walt Disney fabricated nothing here. At quitting time work force did not change out costumes stop McDonalds for dinner. We loved being Mere descriptions are understatement

Sammie routinely performed miracles like the "high-speed blind merge" and the "last second rapid de-acceleration". I watched and learned the cardinal rule of driving in Cairo:you must give up the right of way to any car that speeds in front of you. There is no such thing as being "cut off" because that is the normal and expected. We drove all over the place for 5 days and I never saw any road rage expressed. Lynne learned not to watch.

So Cairo is a foreign place but this difference is without a value judgment on my part. It would have been easy to be lost. It certainly had the potential to be very intimidating. But it also had a beauty and timelessness that I never see in the states. People expected to be tipped for any service, even smiling for the camera. However, the vendors would just talk to us while we hung around together in the shade. They were open about how they lived, their schools, and we got invitations to their homes. Iím very sorry we did not have more time.

English speaking people are not common outside tourist areas. Poverty, on a greater scale than in Western nations, was very evident. There is no government social safety net for the aged or unemployed. Behaviors and dress that are not required in the US are required here (Lynne felt this more than I did). But we were in a country emerging from two thousand years of domination by outsiders. How should we judge them by our standards? Americans are among the most privileged people on earth. Some of us take for granted what was taken away from others.

In Cairo we went everywhere we wanted. Pyramids kept popping into view in the distance. There are 94 different pyramids around Cairo but only three big ones. Before we visited them we had an afternoon to ourselves and visited the Egyptian Museum. Its European faÁade and stuffy interior screamed "British Colonial style" to me. It also lacked air conditioning and decent lighting but its contents revealed that not all the good antiquities were bought (or stolen) by the European powers.

No one is going to take away the three pyramids of Giza. Are there three wider, taller, heavier, more solid, man made structures anywhere on Earth? I donít think so. I never realized how extremely I wanted to visit them until I got real close.

Then we got to go down into the one built for King Menkaure. It began with a descent in the original narrow passageway. That was about 100 foot long and sloped at almost 45 degrees. At the end there were three medium size rooms and many small cubicles. This whole area was hand carved out of the rock that the pyramid is built on top of. The rooms were empty but I was not disappointed-itís a 4000 year old tomb. It was not created to be a tourist attraction. I took lots of pictures.

That afternoon we had lunch with Arnvid Aakre (the manager of Hamad Tours), his wife, and their two-year-old daughter. He accepted my invitation via e-mail. I let him pick the place-The Escoril. Itís a small restaurant-bar on a little street, an ideal place for a private lunch with great character and superb food. The Egyptian Stella beer is also very good.

Arnvid turns out to be Norwegian, one of the many foreigners who fall in love with Egypt and stay. The barís owner, Marisa, is also European. Conversation ranges from what itís like to live in Philadelphia to the value of advertising on the Internet. Itís a great lunch.

At the end of that day Mohammed (the other guide) shows Sammie the road up to the top of the mountain, on the eastern edge of the Cairo. Thereís a town there named Madinat Al-Muqattam. We stop at a real Egyptian neighborhood cafe at the very edge of a cliff to sip strong Turkish coffee. Weíre a thousand feet above Cairo. Mohammed argues with the owner about prices. The wind picks up and off the precipice blows the patio umbrella right next to us. To the west and through bright orange smog we see the sun set over Cairo and the Nile. The City of the Dead is right below us. The Pyramids are in the distance. The four of us are the only customers. We all smile. We talk.

I had to pinch myself here to see if I am dreaming. It is only Oct 9th and our trip lasts until the 13th. The next day we would leave by Egyptair for Luxor. I still had no realization of just how spectacular monuments from antiquity could be, or of the adventure that awaited us.

To Luxor