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Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris – In transit, again.
My overnight flight from South Africa is the best one yet, first class is almost empty. In fact, it’s just me, a French businessman and – oh, right – supermodel Karolina Kurkova (who boards shortly before takeoff – sorry guys, I didn’t take a picture of her).
Finally, fewer people at the Air France pajama party.
It’s a great flight, I again get a decent night’s sleep. When we land in Paris I head to the Air France arrivals lounge and even manage to grab a hot shower and some breakfast.
I have about 4 hours to kill before my flight to Cairo.
Later that night, arrival in Cairo
I was forewarned about the crazy taxi drivers in Cairo.
However, nothing quite prepares you for the horn-honking, lights-flashing, Arabic music-blaring, daredevil-like experience provided, at a reasonable cost, by your average Cairo cabbie.
There are no marked lanes and apparently no hard and fast rules for driving in Cairo. And if there was a posted speed limit somewhere, I’m fairly certain it wasn’t the 130kph my driver was observing. I reach for the seatbelt only to find it is broken so I close my eyes and hope for the best.
Miraculously, we arrive at the Westin Cairo in one piece. When we pull up to the hotel, the taxi is carefully circled by bomb-sniffing dogs. The cabbie is questioned in detail before we are finally allowed to proceed up the drive to the front door.
The driver apologizes profusely for the delay but I’m happy to wait a few extra minutes for the sake of security. Eventually, I check into my room, which has a lovely view of the River Nile, and turn in for the night.
Big day of sightseeing planned for tomorrow!
Touring the Pyramids and the city of Cairo
For my brief stay in Cairo, I enlisted the help of a company called Casual Cairo Detours. The company is owned by Debbie Senters, an American who has lived in Cairo for many years.
Debbie’s company specializes in private tours of the city and can also provide an Egyptologist as your guide to enhance the experience. I have arranged a full day with an Egyptologist and then an evening tour of the Khan al-Khalili market for some shopping with Debbie herself.
At 8:00am, my personal Egyptologist, Nora, is ready and waiting in the lobby of the hotel.
She has a car and driver waiting and we head out to our first stop – the Giza Plateau, home to the infamous pyramids.
The Egyptian Pyramids
As Nora explains on our drive, nearly 5,000 years ago Giza became the royal burial ground for Memphis (then Capital of Egypt).
In less than 100 years, the ancient Egyptians built the three pyramid complexes to serve as tombs for their dead kings. The king’s close family and the royal court were buried in satellite pyramids nearby.
The Great Pyramid is the oldest and largest of the three and was built during the 4th dynasty by King Khufu. The other two pyramids belong to Khafre (son of Khufu) and Menkaure, successor to Khafre.
We arrive first at the Great Pyramid and Nora shares what is known about the life of Khufu and the construction of the pyramid.
Going inside a pyramid
A number of tourists are in line to enter the pyramid through a small hole in its north side. Nora advises against this since it is an hour long walk down crouched corridors and can be very uncomfortable for so little to see inside.
Instead, she wisely suggests waiting until we get to the second pyramid to go inside.
This one has a much less expensive entry fee and is only a 10 minute uncomfortable walk. But it gives you much the same experience as the larger pyramid. We buy a ticket for me and she holds my camera (which cannot be brought in) while I go inside.
She was right, it is extremely uncomfortable to navigate the tiny corridors and I have to crouch down to a squat for almost the entire walk. There is a short reprieve in the middle where I’m able to stand upright.
As she said, there was little to nothing to see inside, just stone corridors so I head back topside.
Been inside a pyramid? Check.
A Camel Ride Around the Pyramids
When I emerge, Nora asks if I want to do a camel ride while we are here since this pyramid is a good place to do it. I had hoped to do a camel ride (loosely following the “when in Rome” theory). So I figure this is as good a time as any – if there is a good time to ride a camel.
We walk over to a man and his son with two camels. Nora asks the man to give me the nice one since I’m a little unsure about this whole idea.
My “nice” camel takes one look at me and emits what I can only describe as a very loud roaring sound. This is the nice one? I immediately decide I don’t want to meet the other one.
With a little coaching from the owner, I climb aboard the sitting camel. For a brief moment I’m thinking, this is okay, nothing to it. And then the camel stands up.
I quickly learned two things about camels:
1) They are much, MUCH, taller than horses.
2) They are NOT AT ALL amused by your presence on their back.
So, off we go, with the owner’s son Hassan (who is probably about 10 years old) leading the way. Hassan holds the rope and pulls the disgruntled camel dutifully along. Nora smiles and tells me to be brave; she’ll be here when I get back.
The ride is actually quite nice. It takes about 30 minutes (all you really need on a camel) and they guide you around the desert to a higher point where you can take great pictures of all three pyramids. Then they bring you back.
It’s all very “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s just you, the camel, the desert and the pyramids.
An ill-advised camel photo op
When we reach the perfect spot for photos, Hassan stops the camel and I obediently hand down my camera.
He takes several great pictures and then decides the camel needs to sit down for the best shot of the pyramids behind me. He may be only 10 but, hey, he’s an artist.
Unfortunately, the camel disagrees. So Hassan tugs on the rope aggressively until the camel finally relents and sits down for photos.
Hassan begins to walk away to take the picture. At this point, the camel decides to remind us who is really in charge and promptly gets back up.
I hold on for dear life as Hassan scolds the camel until he obliges and sits back down. I idly begin to wonder if Hassan has any first-aid training.
But we eventually make it back safe and sound. And now I have finally made the camel happy, I am leaving.
But regardless of the camel discomfort, my camel ride around the Pyramids will always rank as one of my Top 30 most extraordinary travel experiences around the world.
Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences
Next, Nora and I head to our final stop at Giza, the Sphinx.
Standing guard at the approach to the Pyramid of Khafre, the Sphinx is the earliest known monumental sculpture of ancient Egypt.
We access the Sphinx by walking through the adjacent Valley Temple of Khafre, one of the oldest surviving temples in Egypt. Nora points out a number of things inside the temple. Most fascinating is how the enormous stones are stacked on top of each other – all without using any glue in between – in such an intricately sturdy way that they still stand to this day.
The Cairo Museum
With our tour of Giza complete, we move on to our next stop, the Cairo Museum.
The Egyptian Museum in Cairo houses the world’s largest collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. This includes the wealth of the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun.
When we arrive I am instantly thankful that Nora is with me to guide me around and show me the highlights. The museum is enormous and there is so much to see. Nora expertly guides me through the most interesting exhibits and provides a thorough and colorful history of each.
The second half of our tour is devoted entirely to the second floor. It houses all of the artifacts recovered from King Tut’s tomb by a British archaeologist in the early 1900’s. The second floor also features the museum’s more than slightly creepy “mummy room” where you can see actual mummified kings.
The room is kept really cold but that isn’t the only reason it gives me a little chill.
First attempt at Egyptian food
When we leave the museum it’s around lunch time and Nora suggests we grab something to eat on the way to our final stop, the Citadel.
I agree and say I’ll happily go with whatever she suggests. I’m not very familiar with Egyptian food but I’m excited to try it. Especially with the benefit of some local guidance.
She takes me to a falafel stand. This seems like a great idea since I have at least heard of falafel. Nora does the ordering and the pushing through the crowd to get to the counter. I stand in the back and try my best to blend in (tricky when you’re the only tall blond in an Egyptian falafel stand).
Finally, with food in hand for us and our driver we head to the car to eat lunch on the ride. Nora purchased two things for me to try.
The first is fuul (mashed fava beans with lemon juice and olive oil in a baladi – flat brad, like pita bread). The second is a falafel, a deep-fried patty of fava bean paste and green herbs also in a baladi with lettuce and tomato. They are both great and it’s a relief to know that I won’t have to starve while in Egypt.
We arrive at the Citadel which was built in the 12th century and also includes the Mosque of Muhammad Ali built 700 years later.
This stone fortress dominates Cairo’s eastern horizon and has magnificent views over the city. Nora leads me into the mosque after we both remove our shoes. We settle down on the carpet for a while as she points out the significant areas of the mosque and gives me some history on the Muslim religion.
It’s fascinating to hear her discuss Islam and how she lives her daily life. I really enjoy our conversation and the articulate way Nora is able to educate me in something so different from my own culture.
The Cairo Bazaar – Khan al Khalili
After leaving the mosque, we drive back into town to meet Debbie at a café in Khan al Khalili.
This bazaar is described as an “Aladdin’s cave” of spices, perfumes, jewelry and souvenirs. The three of us enjoy tea at a café. And then Nora leaves me in Debbie’s capable hands to navigate the winding corridors of the bazaar for some serious shopping.
I’m not sure what to shop for but it has to be small enough to fit in my tiny suitcase. Maybe some silver jewelry?
Debbie takes me to her favorite silver shop and we are graciously welcomed by the owner who greets her by name and offers us lemon drinks. I pick out a couple of things including a bracelet for myself and a few gifts.
My prized acquisition (which the owner throws in for free thanks to Debbie) is a sliver cartouche. A cartouche is sort of an oval shaped charm with my name spelled in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It takes an hour to have it hand made so we continue our shopping and return to pick it up later.
As we wander the bazaar, I’m so glad to have a local with me as the shop owners can be very “intrusive” on your personal space. It’s a constant barrage of men standing outside their shops trying to draw me inside. I buy a few more things with Debbie’s expert guidance before thanking her for a perfect day and calling it a night.
Next up, a few days at the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheikh.