Pyramid Schemes, Part II

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Sunday, April 3, 2005

Pyramid Schemes, Part II

"It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem too absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." Anne Frank

I opened wide the French doors onto my terrace and sitting in the warmth of the morning sun enjoyed the toasted pita points and jam and large cup of sweet Turkish coffee. I gazed out across the rooftops of the city and I still couldn't help but feel an affinity for its chaotic pacing and decaying glamour. The centuries old British, French and Flemish architecture standing solidly amidst a flourish of medieval arabesques was still intoxicatingly alluring. I refused to give up. I like this city I said to myself - Cairenes be damned. I was determined to find a pearl or two of humanity amongst the snouted touts.

With both hands on the driver's rolled down window I scrunched forward, "The pyramids of Giza- Sphinx entrance -- ten Egyptian Pounds -no more - ten." He nodded and I repeated, "Ten pounds no more!" I climbed in. I asked for some music and he put in a warbled cassette and we chatted as I gazed out at the blurring city. We laughed over our mutual political viewpoints and I almost let my guard down for a moment. I showed him which way I wanted him to turn and remarked that I knew the pyramids well. I gave a brief summary about the previous day's calamities to which he expressed disgust and sympathy. I knew this day would be better I thought, already an Egyptian who seemed genuine. He pulled up to the gate and I saw the Sphinx straight ahead. I handed him two more pounds than we'd agreed on and thanked him for restoring my faith in the Egyptians. He took the money, shook his head and turned to me "No, it's 20 pounds." I didn't say a word, I opened the door, got out, slammed it closed and walked on.

It was precisely 11:00. I stood in exactly the spot we'd discussed. Already like vultures on a fresh carcass they began to swoop down. "Would you like a cup of tea in my shop?" "We have the real essences - you know The Body Shop?" "Please small cup of tea -Egyptian hospitality - come, come." "Camel ride?" "Hey lady you want postcards?" "Come, come sit!" "You need taxi?" "Taxi?" "Cheap price for you everything half price!" I was not going to let it get to me. I smiled shook my head and refused to utter a sound. "Where you from?" "What's wrong?" "Why you mean to me? Why don't you say where you from?" Ten minutes passed. It continued and I responded, "I'm from the US and I thank you for the offers but I've already been here before and I don't want anything at all and there's nothing you can do -nothing to make me change my mind. Thank you very much but I'd rather stand here in silence, please. Thank you very much. Okay?"

Forty-five minutes past the hour and still no sign of him. I remembered that Mohammed had given me his telephone number. I fumbled through my bag and found it went to the payphone and dialed. He remembered me and said he'd be late and to come back in one hour. "At 12:45? You'll be here at 12:45? Do you promise? Yes? Okay, see you then. Thank you!" I slammed down the receiver and took a deep breath and looked around. There were plenty of tea shops and souvenir stores to keep me entertained for an hour. It's going to be a good day, I said to myself. I smiled and marched on through the crowd and found an empty seat at an outdoor tea shop and whiled away the hour and more than a few times had to wave off a fistful of tenacious pests with a strong dismissive flick as though splattering water. I was willing to try anything and this, though a less humane way to interact with another human being actually worked. I continued to employ it.

At 12:40 I stood waiting at the prescribed spot. Twenty minutes passed, thirty, thirty-five. I called him again. No answer. I hung up and pressed my forehead to the receiver and felt the dam burst as the tears streamed down my face. It was official. I'd completely given up. A man approached me, "No friend? Friend not coming?" I described to him what Mohammed looked like and I told him that should he see him to please tell him that he's a worthless liar just like every other Egyptian I've met and "Make sure that you tell him that it's people like him who have ruined all of this for me. Every single bit of it. I don't want to see anything or do anything but get the first ticket out of town. It's all spoiled now." He asked what had happened to make me so upset and I told him. "That man was a liar" he said. "He was going to come by and take you on a camel to go around through the desert and he was going to overcharge you. I know this man - very bad -probably he has already a customer right now. Where do you want to go? Let me help you."

Ruth had told me that the pasha architecture of the Mena House was the grandest hotel in all of Cairo and Giza and she insisted that I have a cup of coffee there. "FDR and Churchill went there to plan D-Day, they filmed 'Valley of the Kings' there and you can sit and see the pyramids. It's lovely." I needed lovely. "I need to go to Mena House to have a cup of coffee and calm down," I told him. He motioned for a cabbie who approached me asking where I wanted to go. I told him and he quoted me ten pounds. "You are mentally ill" I seethed, "I'm going to give you the fair price of four pounds now get in the car and drive me to Mena House and I'm going to give you FOUR POUNDS do you understand me? NO MORE! FOUR! LET'S GO!" I was amusing the man who'd snagged the taxi for me and he laughed, "Sister, you are very strong! Please let me see that you are no longer sad." I smiled and thanked him and for the first time since I've been here I heard someone say, "Welcome to Egypt" who may actually have meant it.

I stepped into the glorious elegance and of the former pasha hunting lodge and breathed a sigh of relief the way one does after entering a cool building on a hot summer's day. My shoulders relaxed, I let the tension slip to the marble floors and my face smoothed into a subtle smile. I glided in and up the stairs to a beautiful dining room of bygone splendor with the towering Cheops at the center of its view. I primly sat looking at the poster-sized menu and selected the least expensive appetizer and a small bottle of mineral water. Ahh, civilization. No touts, no pestering, no leering just a delicious lunch in luxurious safe surroundings with a pyramid view. I lingered.

I went to the concierge and asked how to get to the nearest subway that would take me to Ramses Station so I could buy my ticket to Luxor. He came around the desk and walked me outside pointing to a bus stop and then instructed me how much to pay. I'd just left the safe compound of the Mena House when a cabbie approached me. He asked where I was going and I told him but didn't slow my pace. He followed and said he'd take me for free. I told him that he was a liar and that incase he hadn't received the memo nothing was free in Egypt. He kept at my side as I sped up. He insisted he wanted to take me for free but I insisted that if I got in his cab I would only do so if he let me pay him the proper fare of five pounds. "Why?" I snipped as I strode, "So we can head to a shop where you get commission?" He insisted that he was not like the others and raced ahead of me and opened his cab door, "Come! See for yourself! Free!" I thanked him and said that I wanted to pay five pounds. "Let me buy you a cup of tea and we can get to know each other. You should know a nice Egyptian man." I told him that it was out of the question and that I would not have tea with him and that I did not want to get to know a nice Egyptian man because there weren't any. "Five pounds -- you want to take me to the metro or not?" He shook his head, "No, 15 pounds!" I slammed my shoulder into his and hissed, ran down the street and hopped on the bus.

Ramses Station is a huge art deco terminal, a bustling hive of commuters with one side lined with rugs covered with men prostrating themselves in prayer toward Mecca. After being jostled through the crowd and been sent to two different gates I was then sent to five different windows and ended back at the first. The overnight train to Luxor was booked for the next two days. I was disappointed but flying was out of the question so I took what I could get. A man offered to help me whom I thought was of course suspicious and when I received my ticket I even went to a policeman and asked if it was real. I wasn't like this last week - Cairo had turned me into a distrustful, bitter traveler. I knew that if I wasn't careful this country was going to try to screw me either literally or figuratively. I am intent on it being neither.

Back on the sidewalk I twisted the scarf back around my head, covering my hair and briskly headed back to my hotel. "Hey you look like an Egyptian in that scarf!" an annoying man yelled and ran up next to me. Dodging past pedestrians like a rapid game of hopscotch I glared into the distance, "Please leave me alone." He only wanted to "give me a compliment" he falsely pleaded. "Yeah? Well, if you'll forgive me but every single Egyptian I've met in the past two weeks has been full of shit." A western couple in front of me laughed and the girl turned around and empathetically blurted, "You can say that again!"

Just for the record, Anne Frank never went to Egypt.

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