The Great Pyramid? Yeah, it's big.
The trick to Giza, we figured, was booking a car for the day through the hotel. That way, we wouldn't be standing around trying to hail a cab at the necropolis itself, haggling frantically for a price. Instead, we'd just set it and forget it, like some kind of bad travel infomercial. The hotel suggested that we leave at 7:15 a.m. -- traffic is way lighter in Cairo on Fridays, because it's a holy day, but we wanted to get to the Pyramids right at 8 a.m. so we had a hope of getting inside whichever one would be open. On the ride there, we were amazed at how almost blase the first sighting of them is. You can see them over the suburb, on the highway, hanging out and towering over the nearby houses as if they're no big deal, as if they're not 3000-year old marvels.
The unfinished roof is an interesting story. The driver told us that in other African countries (he cited Tunisia), the government doesn't collect taxes on the buildings until they are finished, so people just leave them this way with the rebar sticking out the top. But the Egyptian government figured out that scam quickly, and charges taxes up front; the reason people leave them unfinished is because when your family grows and expands, it's cheaper to build up if you never fully finished the roof in the first place.
Anyway: About here is when we ran into one of the recurring scams. Everyone is incredibly friendly, but there is extreme poverty in Egypt as well -- driving back through one rural part of the town near the Giza necropolis, we saw a dead horse rotting in the street near a stream -- so the culture is also founded on getting tourists to think they need to spend more money. And that's fine; who can blame them? Just know when to say no, or if you don't care, then don't SAY no. In this case, our driver got us to the pyramids by about 7:50 a.m., chattering the whole way about how if we wanted to ride a horse or a camel, he'd take us straight to a stable right away. But we hadn't decided yet what we were going to do and wanted to consult the guidebooks privately first to remind ourselves where they advise people to get their mounts, so we declined. He mentioned it about three times, then conceded and drove us to the pyramids... where the police turned us away because the parking lot wasn't yet open.
"It doesn't open until 8:30," our driver said after he flipped a U-turn and then pulled over to the side of the road. We all exchanged glances. It didn't make sense: Why would the hotel suggest we arrive THAT early? Why did all the guidebooks say 8 a.m.? Why hadn't he even mentioned until now, "Oh, hey, by the way, you'll be about 45 minutes early"? We held our ground and said we'd wait to see if it opened at 8, and sure enough, as tour bus after tour bus lined up by the entrance, the gate went up at eight o'clock on the dot and people started driving inside. Our driver pretended to notice this with surprise, then drove us up through to the parking lot and the ticket offices. We figured out later that the driver was trying to get us to spend money at his friend's stable right away, to ride a camel up to the pyramids and then probably tip the guides for an extra tour of the structures, by convincing us we'd have no other option but to sit and wait for almost an hour in the heat. Oddly, we didn't mind. It wasn't awkward as much as it was amusing. We'd run into something similar the night before, when we were trying to cross one of Cairo's hideously crazy streets and we ended up falling in behind a local guy, figuring that he probably knew how to dodge cars and not get himself killed. He smiled at us and said he taught at the American University in Cairo, then asked where we were going and pointed us in the right direction. And then, suave as can be, he walked away and then SUDDENLY pretended to remember that, oh, the restaurant is closed and doesn't open for another 45 minutes, but if we'd like he could take us to a nearby bazaar where we could get souvenirs for way better prices than the more touristy ones. We thanked him politely but said no, and sure enough, the restaurant was not closed at all. When you think about it, it's sort of ingenious. Well, until the dollar bottoms out there, too, at which point it will become tiresome.
According to the guidebooks, they rotate which Pyramid you can pay extra to enter, and the ticket office only sells 150 passes when it opens at 8 a.m. and then another 150 at 1 p.m. Since this trip was all about No Regrets, doing whatever we could while we were there and never looking back and wishing we'd waited in that one line or paid that extra 50 Egyptian pounds, we decided we had to try. Of course, finding the two ticket offices is almost impossible -- our driver pointed us to the right place, and we probably would have sussed it out, but they're definitely not extremely concerned about making sure it's obvious where you're supposed to go. It all worked out, though, and we found ourselves heading straight over to The Great Pyramid and walking inside.
When you climb up to the indentation, you leave your camera with the guards -- whom, of course, you must then tip in order to get it back; brilliant, and since we're talking a tip that equals about 50 cents, no skin off my nose either -- and proceed inside a ways, at which point you think, "It's sort of cooling in here, and not that claustrophobic at all!" Then you come to the tiny walkway that requires you to hunch down almost in half and walk up a steep ramp for about two minutes. Right around the time your back silently complains to you, the ceiling opens up again, and you take another ramp up to a room that's about the size of a bedroom in a moderately sized apartment. The inside was dark, smooth stone, as smooth and flawless and perfectly engineered as if it were built ten years ago rather than in 2500 B.C. An air vent that had been there since ancient times, back when they used this as a burial chamber, let in a little air and light. Somberly we stood there, awed, amazed, that we were standing about halfway up the Great Pyramid in a room that looked more modern than half of Los Angeles. We touched the walls, agape. We breathed deep. And then a group from New Zealand chose to commemorate this moment by sing-shouting a national song at the top of their lungs. Twice. I'm all for being jovial, but... pipe down, y'all. Khufu wants you to can it.
What goes up must come down, and just as we headed for the steep ramp -- now, of course, slanted down like a wooden slide -- it occurred to us that they hadn't stopped letting people INSIDE, which meant we'd have to squeeze our way down in a contorted ball while OTHER tourists came up the way we did. We managed, and it was actually really fun and crazy and unlike anything else I've ever experienced, but there was a moment where I wondered if my neck would ever be straight again. Once we burst out into the light, oh, BOY, did the lactic acid burn set in on my thighs.
Jess and I had to stop and stretch. I love this picture -- very "Schlamiel! Schlamazel!" of us. Jessica does not care for tight spaces, so I was very proud of her for screwing up her courage and going inside the Pyramid. She had totally the right attitude about it being a once-in-a-lifetime experience that she might not ever want to do again, but that she might regret never doing at all, so major props must be given. I've never seen her look so relieved as when we were back outside with no ceiling but the cloudless sky.
From there, we just moseyed around and enjoyed the sights and the ambiance. The above pyramid is Khafre's Pyramid, the second-tallest of the three large pyramids on the site, the one belonging to the Pharaoh whose face is believed to be depicted by the Sphinx, and the only one with its limestone casing present on the apex. They all used to be covered in that smooth finish, the better to gleam in the sunlight like jewels of the desert, but over the years the Egyptians borrowed the limestone so they could use it to build other things. Bet they're regretting that now. The smaller pile of rubble there is a pyramid as well -- one of the Queens' pyramids. There are six of those on the site.
Speaking of Sphinxy:
I am crushing his head. The Kids In The Hall boys would be so proud.
My favorite quote about the Sphinx was in one of our guidebooks. Apparently some dude once compared seeing it to encountering a famous actor in person: attractive, but must smaller than you expect. This shot of the discrepancy in scale between the lion paws and the head illustrates the truth of that. Incidentally, Napoleon gets the official blame for the missing nose, although Egyptologists generally all agree that it wasn't really his doing. The lesson here: Apparently, it's never not been fun to blame the French.
Hey, what's he been looking at all this time, anyway?
Oh. Well, carry on, then.
Men on camels roam the Giza Necropolis trying to convince tourists to hop on for a ride. They're persistent, but apparently you do get a better deal in town, so we ignored them. Instead, we had our driver take us back to his friend's place, and we all got hooked up on a steed: two camels...
... and a horse...
... which let's face it, was actually a pony named Sugar.
Don't worry, Jess and Kevin traded mounts for the ride back; they let me stay on the camel because I had been the keenest on the whole camel experience from the get-go. They are nice. Also, Kevin was going to look way funnier on Sugar than I was. Trust.
Oh, and my camel's name? Michael Jackson. The other was Mickey Mouse. I am pretty sure these names change every time they go out, based on whatever American references leap to the guides' minds. Michael Jackson was very kind to me. He didn't spit at all, but he did ride behind Mickey Mouse, who had a bit of a flatulence problem -- of the noisy, rather than smelly, variety, thank God. I will never forget the first few times it let fly as Kevin sat atop it, and our guide, who didn't speak a whole lot of English, promptly made a joke as if it were Kevin who'd let one rip. It's not often that a fart joke makes me laugh, but that was definitely one of the last contexts in which I expected to hear one.
It was tough getting used to the gait of a camel. It lopes, with a slight side-to-side feel, and when it sits down and stands up you have to lean back really far or else you'll tumble off. This accounts for my sore stomach muscles the next day, because of course, he said lean back and man, did I lean. I LEANED. I was practically lying down along its back.
We wandered through town out to the desert, to the spot at which you can see all nine pyramids in one camera shot.
I love the kid's "Hummer" shirt. The only weirder one we saw was when we passed a competing guide who wore, I kid you not, a denim vest emblazoned with the ORANGE COUNTY CHOPPERS logo.
Okay, this next photo is one of my absolute favorites, for two very different reasons, one of which is totally embarrassing. Ready?
1) It's just a cool photo;
2) I realized a month ago, when I contemplated putting it as my Facebook picture, that the way I'm sitting with the saddle makes it look like I have my hand wrapped around a giant, fat boner. No, seriously. It does. Check it. If ever the horrible, icky euphemism "chubby" applied, it would be to this. Maybe it's not as bad when you see the picture at this size, but when I was uploading it to the wee space on Facebook, it was like, "Hello, friends from high school whom I haven't seen in 12 years! CHECK OUT MY AWESOME LADY-WANG!" Sigh.
See? More amusing seeing Kevin on a tiny pony. Told you.
It was at this point that something really awesome happened.
As we started back, with the pyramids on our left, nothing but desert on our right, and a view of the city ahead, it struck noon. The call to prayer rang out in the distance, echoing eerily and stirringly around the necropolis. Because it was a holy day, it lasted through our entire ride back to town, and at one point we crossed paths with a car being driven around town while someone yelled things in Arabic through a megaphone. Our driver was at the mosque when we dismounted, so we had to wait for him to finish, which we were more than happy to do. It gave us a chance to soak it all in, this incredible cultural difference between there and here. Really, there is nothing analogous to it. Can you imagine if at a set time on Sunday, people came on over the loudspeakers all over your hometown and recited prayers, or incited you to attend a service? And can you imagine if that happened every day? It's hard. I couldn't picture it even then. Totally fascinating, moving, and strangely beautiful. And what a way to hear it for the first time. I will never, ever forget what it felt like to be on top of a camel, slowly padding my way past the only original Wonder of the World that still stands, a gentle breeze cooling my face while the call to prayer sounded around us. Some memories fade but with others, you just close your eyes and you're right back there, and that's one of them.
And to think that's only what we did for HALF the day.