Sunday, 2 March 2008

Pyramid perils

More tales of the road as our driver hurtles along at breakneck speed from the hotel to the pyramids of Giza on our first day of sightseeing. His course sees him bobbing perilously between lorries, cars, the occasional horse and cart and the more frequent donkey dragging an overladen trailor of vegetables. Oh yes and let’s not forget the odd camel or two.

I quickly realise that this makes France’s infamous Arc de Triomphe look like a doddle to drive around, and count my lucky stars that we hadn’t even thought about a hire care. I briefly wonder why there are no Egyptian formula one drivers (lack of money I muse) but my attention is quickly diverted. “Hang on isn’t that a 1970s Peugot 504 taxi headed straight towards us – on the wrong side of the road?”

I’m so Zen that it doesn’t seem to matter. I’m not buckled up and have long since stopped worrying about the future. And yes of course it’s on the wrong side of the road, but with one deft manoeuvre our driver has avoided a head-on collision and instead cut in front of a gas-belching truck. Our only concern now is to wind the windows up as quickly as possible.

Nor am I really listening to the guide, who is trying to give us centuries worth of ancient history in just a few minutes – less than 60 seconds for each of the 30 Pharaoh’s dynasties. Instead I’m gazing through the window, gaping at 21st century life – which I’m having enough problems grasping never mind what has gone on before.

Cairo is enormous - around 25 million people we’ve been told – and it’s one of those places where the very rich rub shoulders with the extremely poor – and it just seems to be the natural order of things.

It’s all very difficult to arrange in one’s pea-sized brain, especially as there’s also the cultural element to factor in. I shouldn’t but I do, stare at women in headscarves – by far the majority here it seems – and wonder what all the fuss is about back in Europe. Here they seem to just get on with life, wear the thing proudly and accept it. But heck, what do I know, I wonder to myself. Maybe it is after all just a way of keeping women in their place. And then I see a couple wearing the whole black caboodle from head to toe, with just their eyes peeping through. I’m even more incensed and horrified, staring further in incomprehension.

The pyramids soon provide me with another distraction. Boy is it hard to keep one’s focus in this country as the ancient and modern collide with each other so frequently and so noisily.

There are the young boys desperate to sell me any kind of nonsense for a few Egyptian pounds, and there are the tourists all striking the same stiff pose as the camera lens clicks for what must be the umpteenth time in a gesture we know has been and will continue to be repeated ad nauseam over the years.

I try hard to join in, but I feel embarrassed and superior and anyway, the guy perched on his camel as we drove past, would have made a far better picture. Except now I’ve been told even if we had wanted to take a photo of him, we would have had to pay for the delight.

Still I marvel at the sheer effort there must have been in moving all that stone in worship of a pharaoh. Not strong on the original thinking I guess. But would anyone be willing to do the same for Posh n’ Becks or Brangelina today I wonder if they decided they needed immortalising in the same way.

A quick lesson on mummification from the guide takes the stomach to unchartered territory so far on this trip. Perhaps that’s still to come with my steadfast refusal not to be persuaded against eating the fresh fruit and veggies.

Time for a quick peak at the Sphinx, minus its beard, which apparently the British museum still refuses to return, although quite why yet again escapes me – and the tour guide wasn’t much help on that front either.

So the whistle stop is over and Aswan beckons. Internal airlines will test my steel.

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