I woke up the morning of my second full day in Cairo feeling quite fantastic, actually. My alarm played a cheerful little piano ditty. I switched it off, flipped up my eye mask, removed my spongy earplugs, yawned and savored a nice long, full-body stretch. Then I snuggled into the soft downy bed in my room at The Arabian Nights Hotel for a few extra minutes of snoozing before rising for my 9am Giza Pyramids tour.
And that’s when I felt it.
An itch—a quick zing, like a tiny zap of electricity—on my right foot, which I often let dangle comfortably over the side of my bed, just slightly, while I sleep. I drew back the sheets and gasped, “Ohhh…myyy…Goddd….”
My foot looked like it had endured a heinous assault during the night by at least three of the 10 Plagues of Egypt.
And it itched! Holy Sphinx, it itched.
Don’t touch it don’t touch it don’t touch it…! I commanded myself, my fingers bent in a rigid claw shape hovering above the smattering of tiny mounds. They reminded me of a miniature topographic map featuring a range of swollen red mountains against the flat, pasty white plains of my skin.
I supposed I really only had myself to blame.
After I’d arrived at the hotel the first night and was shown to my stuffy second story room by Mohammed, the friendly salt and pepper haired concierge who worked the evening front desk shift. The need for ventilation was dire, so the first thing I did was open the wood-shuttered window.
The absence of a glass pane or screen allowed cool evening air to flood straight into the drab, hot room. It felt good. I unzipped my backpack and removed my clothes bag, placing it on an empty shelf in the corner. As I unpacked (an almost mechanical ritual by now) I could hear cars honking from the nearby main thoroughfare, kids laughing below, the pop and sizzle of fireworks somewhere, and a couple of cats yowling and hissing at each other. They apparently ran off down the street, their whines of discontentment echoed off the bare cinderblock walls of neighboring buildings.
I took out my computer and sat on the bed to check email. After a while, I heard something buzz past my ear and glanced up to see several spastic flies whizzing about. A bunch of mosquitos, too. Ugh. I got up and closed the window, then tried to coax the ancient AC unit on the wall into action. It complied, barely, coughing out air only vaguely less warm than what was already in the room.
I looked around for something with which to swat the little intruders. The only paper I had was the stub of my plane ticket and a few flimsy receipts. Those wouldn’t work. I looked at my passport and my cellphone. No, yuck. Then my eyes landed on my rubber-soled sandals. I picked one up and for several minutes scampered around the room whacking fruitlessly at the elusive buggers. Then I tried ninja-stealth-statue mode, and managed to nail a few of the mosquitos, but none of the flies. Eventually I gave up, smeared insect repellant on my face and body and went to bed, pulling the sheets up to my chin despite the heat.
The next morning, I opened my eyes and immediately noticed mosquito and fly bites (possibly flea bites?) on the exposed patches of skin where I had neglected to apply repellant: my hairline, the tops of my hands, the back of my neck, the underside of my forearms, and a few spots on both feet. Then I felt an itching sensation set in on my right hip, which is the side I sleep on. I pulled my pajamas back and was met by five quarter-sized raised red welts. I cringed.
I seemed to recall reading that bedbug bites looked something like large red welts…
Most of the my first full day in Cairo was spent holed up in my all-you-can-eat buffet room for creepy crawlies (at least the wifi was good, a minor blessing) and caught up on my photo editing and writing. I had already paid for three days’ worth of Cairo tours, and the insect bites were tolerable enough, the hotel cheap enough, and the staff nice enough—to warrant sticking it out here, I reasoned.
Besides, I’d experienced worse, and was sure to endure worse still during the remaining 10 months of my journey—so I figured I had better start showing a little backbone.
That evening, a driver picked me up for a Nile Dinner Cruise.
As I understood it, this would entail a blissful jaunt up the Nile on a large boat, dinner and drinks, authentic Egyptian music, bellydancing and a Sufi Spinning, or, “Whirling Dervish” type of performance. It sounded delightful. I love being exposed to the traditional music and dance of various cultures. Plus, I was looking forward to chatting with other groups of tourists, and couldn’t wait to take pictures of the city lights of Cairo reflecting off the waters of the Nile River at night.
We arrived a bit early, parked the car, boarded the vessel and were directed up to the top level of the huge barge to sit and wait. My driver Mohammed (“There are a lot of Mohammeds here” he told me with a chuckle) seemed to feel the need to entertain me. He hovered nearby, trying (rather awkwardly) to make conversation in his limited English, and suggesting a variety of photo opps using my camera. I got the impression he had taken the same poses for countless other foreigners like me who he’d chaperoned on this tour in the past.
Just as the sun was fading into a slightly disappointing smog-infused sunset on the Nile, the other tourists and I waiting on the deck were notified that it was time for dinner. Apparently I was the only person not part of a massive tourist group; there were two in total, and both groups would be seated first.
“India!” called one of the cruise crew, holding up a correlating sign. All of the visiting Indians, maybe 30 or 40 in number, gathered, and were marched down into the ‘party room.’
Then the man resurfaced on deck and shouted, “China!” and the remaining 20 or 30 folks were herded in the same direction as India until it was just me remaining. After about 15 minutes, the man returned once more and led my overseer and I to the main event.
The party room featured tinted windows (which, sadly, negated a clear view of the Nile) and a plethora of chairs and tables that encircled a small dance floor. I was seated at a table for two directly next to the dance floor, with just enough space between me, the India side of the room and the China side to nix any conversation between me and anyone else. Feeling the need to busy myself with something in order to avoid appearing as isolated as I felt (Mohammed had disappeared to a rear table), I ordered a glass of wine to sip on. A quick room scan told me that I was the only one present drinking alcohol. Leave it to the one American to hit the booze, I thought.
After dinner, which consisted of a buffet-style selection of nation-neutral items like fish, chicken and pasta (not a morsel of traditional Egyptian food to be found), the evening’s entertainment began.
A band of three bongo players commenced with a lively beat while a man at a microphone erupted into a wailing traditional Arabic song. The lights dimmed and suddenly a pale blur of fluffy blonde hair and sparkle sashayed past me to the dance floor. The girl, who I later found out was not Arabic (that was rather obvious), but Canadian, began to bellydance extremely enthusiastically to the music.
From my table, a mere five feet from her shimmies, gyrations and twinkling gold belly chain, I felt a teensy bit uncomfortable. I more or less attempted to fix my eyes on the bottom of my dwindling wine glass until it was over.
Next up was the Whirling Dervish. A handsome Egyptian man wearing a long dress-like outfit with bloomers underneath, and a Fez cap on his head, strode to the dance floor. With a nod to the musicians, he started to spin. The skirt part of his ensemble featured colorful stripes and patterns that blended together for a cool effect as he twirled around and around.
And then…he went absolutely Las Vegas on us.
With a flick of a switch on his belt, tiny colored lights illuminated up and down the skirt like a Christmas tree. As he spun, the lights melded into a dizzying wheel of glowing streaks.
As Mohammed drove me back to the hotel, I gazed out the rolled down car window, listened to the endless vehicle honking and yelling of drivers and realized that the only authentic Egyptian-ness I had witnessed all night was here. In the car. With the windows down and warm air blowing in. Watching people out on the streets walking to wherever it was they were going, which likely was nothing so ridiculous as the cheesy tourist roundup I had just experienced.
The following day (when I’d awoken to find that my entire body had been used as an insect chew toy) I managed to pull myself together sufficiently enough to head out for the Giza Pyramids tour.
Again, my hotel had provided a driver. Today it was a slim, curly-haired guy of, I guessed 27 or 28, called Hamid. We drove for 45 minutes, plowing through morning traffic jams to Giza on the outskirts of Cairo. As we grew closer, the ancient pyramids quietly emerged from behind tall, empty-looking apartment buildings. Rough city pavement seemed to halt at an invisible line, giving way to the smooth sand of the Sahara.
I was now at the complete opposite end of the desert from where I had only recently ridden camels into the dunes in Morocco.
An involuntary smile crept across my face, anticipation fired through my veins.
I was really here, about to see the Great Pyramids, an alluring dream of mine since childhood. It had always seemed such an untouchable fantasy.
Hamid explained that there were several ways to see the Giza pyramids. You could go on foot with the other masses of tourists and see just a few, or you could go by horse or by camel and see most or all of them. For something as awesome as this (probably) once in a lifetime chance, and considering I had already done the camel riding thing, I elected to go with the horse option and see all of them.
With that option, the tour would be private and not in a group, I’d have my own guide—Zaid, a five-year veteran of the equestrian pyramid tour. My horse, which was led out of the narrow, dark stable by a young boy was a healthy, shiny-coated bay gelding named Baraq (the Arabic word for “lightning”). Zaid, at my request, helped me tie my scarf into a turban (I am now a believer in the effectiveness of turbans against desert sand, sun and flies), and then gave me a leg up into the saddle.
My family had had horses when I was a kid growing up on a farm in Michigan. I’d been utterly obsessed with the animals, and for 10 years had ridden seriously in horse shows, and was the captain of my high school equestrian team for two years. In college, waning time and interest led me to sell my last horse, and hang up my jodhpurs for good.
For the last 15 years I’ve told myself I would not get on a horse again if it was going to be just some lame nose-to-butt trail ride where the horse is more in charge than the rider. I’d only do it if it was ‘real’ riding. All or nothing.
This, I felt, would not be anything like a silly pony ride.
And it wasn’t.
“Want to gallup?” Zaid asked me with an almost devilish grin as we summited a sandy hill.
All that lay between us and the six behemoth pyramids of the Giza plateau was a wide stretch of flat, blank desert. I was a little uncertain, feeling as though I hadn’t quite gotten my sea legs under me as easily as I’d expected.
“Umm…” Don’t be a chicken, my subconscious chided. “Sure…” I heard myself say.
The horses instinctively knew what was coming, I felt Baraq’s muscles tighten. His head raised and he pulled at the bit as I tried to get a firmer grip in the saddle and center the stirrups under the balls of my feet. I nodded at my guide.
“Yella!” Zaid shouted, “Let’s go!” He quickly slapped the slack of the reins on both sides of his horse’s neck, and the horse took off. I nudged Baraq in the same direction, clucking, and managing to push him into only a quick trot. I tapped his flanks lightly with the riding crop Zaid had given me. The beautiful horse gave a small defiant buck, and then we were off at a wind-whipping gallop across the desert sand toward the pyramids.
It wasn’t terribly graceful, and my backpack bounced awkwardly with every rolling stride—but it was incredible!
My fear fizzled and I smiled and whooped as we flew over the sand, the ancient triangular shapes growing larger and larger with each second.
Adrenaline and joy mingled with whistling desert wind as Baraq’s hooves hit the sand in that familiar-but-long-forgotten beat. It felt like a strange and wonderful dream, one that—I knew even as it was happening—I would remember forever.
When we eventually slowed and then came to a halt at the side of the Khufu pyramid, the largest, I felt only bliss. Lingering misery from the previous two days’ onslaught of blood-sucking pests and ceaseless itching, along with sweltering, sticky hotel rooms, and mind-numbingly inauthentic tourist dreck—was vanquished.
Dismounting, I handed the reins to Zaid and climbed as far as I could up the side of the pyramid. From that vantage point, I could see the other pyramids clearly, as well as the opposite view of the Cairo cityscape from where I’d been only an hour earlier in the car. The modern structures seemed such a jarring shift from the great wonder of the ancient world upon which I now stood.
We moved on toward the Sphinx, which was crawling and crowded, and rife with touts attempting to free tourists of large quantities of their cash by offering overpriced camel and pony rides on mangy, exhausted-looking animals. Zaid asked if I wanted to go and join the fray on foot to get close to the Sphinx. I firmly declined and opted to admire the relic from afar.
Finally, it was time to the stable. We rode back and dismounted, turning our horses over to the stable boy. My legs felt bowed and wobbly.
Zaid had one more treat for me. Along the way, I had randomly asked if they had any horses of the famous Egyptian Arabian Horse breed, which had always been a favorite of mine as a kid. It was one of the oldest pure breeds in all the world.
It turned out they did have such a horse.
He led me through the long, narrow and scarcely lit barn to a stall at the end. Opening the thick stall door, I saw light pouring in from a window onto the pure white coat of a breathtaking mare they called Sahar, meaning sunrise. Her eyes were calm and kind, yet she exuded plenty of spirit. I patted her smooth neck and felt my love of horses coursing through me once again, like the return of an old and cherished memory.
“Do you want to ride her?” asked Zaid.
I considered it for a moment, but replied, “Another time.”
My pyramid gallop euphoria was ebbing now and my bug-bitten skin was starting to itch again, aggravated by the layer of dust that covered my arms and sandaled feet. As I trudged back to Hamid’s car, my enthusiasm for more sightseeing was plummeting rapidly. I felt pinned between the desire to halt everything and get myself as quickly as possible to a clean, quiet hotel where I could wash, apply some itch-calming ointment and rest—and the persistent thought that I might not have another opportunity like this to experience these sights which I had yearned to see since childhood.
I opted for sticking it out.
The rest of the day was spent clenching my jaw and trying to ignore the awful itching and enjoy my time as Hamid took me around to the final stops of the tour. I went to the Pyramid of Djoser (a step pyramid nearly 30,000 years old) along with nearby tombs in the Saqqara necropolis northwest of Memphis.
Next I saw a papyrus paper making demonstration and then did a visit to the city of Memphis outside of Cairo, where I saw the largest remaining statues from Giza (and was aggressively harassed by touts trying to tempt me into buying their cheap trinkets). Then, thankfully, the day’s touring was over.
The Memphis Sphinx
That night I slathered on vast quantities of bug repellant, donned long pants and socks and a long-sleeved shirt, and then (in order to avoid contact with the bed sheets) crawled into my Sleep Sack—a thin sleeping bag sort of thing with a zipper that could zip up to encase me, featuring a swath of fabric that could fit over a pillow. I was miserable and sweating, but determined to avoid any further bites. There couldn’t possibly be much more of me left to chew on.
Early on the third day, I opened my eyes to the worst itching I had ever experienced in probably my entire life. Somehow, new bites had appeared overnight despite my efforts. I counted them: more than 70 raised, red, awful bumps of varying shapes, sizes and colors covered my body, from head to toe.
That’s it, I decided. I can’t stay here anymore. I’m leaving tonight.
I had already paid for one last tour that day, so, reluctantly, I thought I would try to at least get my money’s worth, AND stop at a pharmacy on the way out for some kind of medicine to sooth the merciless itching.
The tour that day was to the Egypt Museum, then the Muhammed Ali II Mosque, and then to the Coptic Cairo, the Old City area where Christianity first took root in Egypt, and one or two other spots afterward.
My driver for the day, Mustafa, found a pharmacy for me and helped me describe what I needed. The “potion” as the pharmacist called it, didn’t seem to do much immediately, and I felt no relief.
The beating heat of the day, the traffic and non-stop honking car horns, the fascinating-yet-terribly-crowded museum, made worse by the fact that Mustafa knew nothing about the Coptic area and simply let me out to wander about on my own without a clue as to what I should be looking at or why—was putting me into a rather foul mood.
When I realized that my camera battery was dead (I had not been feeling particularly creative in Egypt in general anyway) it was the last straw. I pulled the plug on the rest of the tour and asked to be taken back to the hotel, claiming a headache. Once there, I marched directly up to my infested room, booked an expensive (for my budget, anyway) hotel online, packed my bags and got the heck out.
The remaining two days in Egypt were spent luxuriating in my nice, clean (and delightfully bug-free) hotel, treating myself to room service, writing and applying more “potion” to my bites. By the time I needed to head to the airport to jet to my next destination, the itching had mostly subsided and I felt cool and rested.
The view from this hotel near Tahrir Square offered up a landscape of traffic, satellite dishes, smog and unfinished buildings. My first driver, Mohammed, had told me that oftentimes buildings here which appeared unfinished on the outside were in fact completed on the inside; they are actually quite nice and being lived in. It was simply too expensive for builders to make the outsides look shiny and polished.
This fast, last-minute journey of mine to Egypt was not so dissimilar. My experience had been rough and very challenging. But Cairo itself is amazing, with layers upon layers of intricate history that inspire awe, and recent indications that it is a city fighting to bring about positive change. It is, however, an unpolished place in my eyes—it had not been all I’d hoped for on the outside. But at its core, it had given me some wonderful experiences I’ll never forget.
“Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us.”
– Pope Shenouda III
Next stop: Istanbul, Turkey and a road trip to the stunning Aegean Sea!