“I feel heartbroken for your country. It is so safe, and the people are so warm and friendly. Your food is a treat and your landscape is beautiful. But none of my western friends will come since terror attacks in this part of the world”
The words clearly struck a chord with my Amazigh (Berber) student audience in North Africa as I attempted my first ever seminar on travel in such a context. The looks in the eyes of those I was speaking to spoke volumes. “Why won’t people come to our country? Our tourism suffers. People are scared of us. Our country languishes without income.”
And for once, I had few words to reply.
“I don’t honestly know.”
Their hurt was real.
But despite the safety that I still proclaim to everyone, wherever I go, I had just 5 days earlier been held at gunpoint while on holiday in a neighbouring county. And not for the first time.
I had decided to venture down to see the lesser known pyramids in Egypt. There are the Pyramids of Giza – everyone knows them. If you visit there, you’ll get constantly hassled by guides wanting your money, people trying to flog their wares to you, and take photos with tourists in that thousands of others have taken before you.
Less known, but as old, and just as impressive are the pyramids south of that just 40 minutes by car. So for around 6 euro in an Uber, I set off there first before the sun got too unbearable.
My Uber driver, although not by any means conversational in English, still managed to convey international sign language to indicate “I’m puzzled and I think you’re crazy” when he saw the destination that his phone sent him to. In the middle of the desert.
But nonetheless he obeyed, because he was being paid to do so. On arrival in the desert, he was still just as puzzled, though admittedly more because he has been so intently following his Uber maps that he hadn’t noticed the giant Pyramids looming large to his left.
“Do you really want me to drop you here in the desert, miles from any civilisation?”
Or at least those were the words I could imagine he would have said if I’d understood enough Arabic, or he, English.
I pointed to his left out the window.
His jaw dropped.
“We have pyramids here?!”
And so I happily opened the door and clambered out, glad that I could help a local discover his own country. And a beautiful country at that.
2 hours later, and I’d largely finished my meandering around the pyramids, separated by about 4km across the sand from each other. During that 2 hours I started to understand how baffled he had been – I had not seen anyone else. These were in the tourist books ok. This was the oldest pyramid in Egypt. But there was no-one for miles. Perhaps around 15 cars in a car park a few miles back signalled that there perhaps was life here that I hadn’t met. But then again, perhaps they were parked for the only other building within miles around – something that looked like a research centre over beyond the car park.
As I walked back towards the first pyramid, I noticed a track going up the side of it to an entrance half way up. Perhaps a last stop before I leave? And it would be a welcome respite from the searing heat that was starting to build. I’d forgotten that although in Cairo the 43 degree heat didn’t burn me because of the pollution in the air, that out here, I wouldn’t be so lucky.
Arriving at the top of the winding stairs to the ancient doorway to the tomb of the Pharaohs past, I was greeted warmly by the usual “Guide”, who seemingly spoke only 4 words of English, and had used them all within his first sentence greeting me.
“Welcome! You welcome. Where you from?”
Such “guides” are normal everywhere in this culture and many others. A means of employing poorer members of society without giving them “dole” money, assuming they’ll get tips for their “job” off passers by. Call it tipping or bribery, depending on what culture you grew up in, the Arabs have a beautiful word “Baksheesh” to sum it up without the many words. This man clearly hadn’t got the news that the Tourist Board had decided to not promote these pyramids this year, and was waiting for his rich pickings off the hoards arriving that day: me.
To show my thankfulness at his attempt at English and warm welcome, I exchanged his four words for around 10 of mine in Arabic, but quickly gave up.
“Ana men Irelanda! Ana Irelandi” (I come from Ireland, I’m Irish)
“Ahh. Landan! Landan great city! Sun Landan?”
And much as I wondered whether he’d strayed back into Arabic, I was fairly certain that this was English, and he (like many others) had not heard of Ireland. What was I to expect when their colonial oppressor had also been ours?
At my disappointed look, he knew to quickly change the topic.
I was glad I paid attention in my last Arabic class the day before. I smiled at him, knowing this game well. He asks me for a non-existing thing. I look alarmed and ask him how much. He states his price and I pay him lots of money. I’d been here many times before. But something dawned in my head triggering memories of Lonely Planet saying it was 80 Egyptian Pounds (4 euros) to enter the pyramids. Perhaps I should pay after all.
“Tathcara!!” he said more firmly, not liking that I was clearly playing a game with him. A game that he had seen all too often before. I shrugged and showed him I had no ticket. He sat in silence, perplexed, and quite baffled at how I could get here without “tathcara”. I sat similarly perplexed, but more wondering how anyone could actually have “tathcara”! And just when I thought we were united in a beautiful perplexed state, and nearly friends, he lept up, cupped his hands and let out a low horn sound from his mouth, which carried across the sands into the bare nothing-ness of the desert expanse before us. I smiled at him, delighted to see no doubt, a local tribal call. He called again, and I sat back to finish my water, in my platypus pack on my back. A rich cultural experience.
That is, until a Police car appeared through the dust, quite out of nowhere and came to rest at the bottom of the steps I had climbed to get here.
“Come here Sir!” the voice called out below. And so I ventured downwards to explain, glad that someone had arrived who had more common language than my Baksheesh collector friend.
“How did you get here without ticket?”
“By taxi”, I honestly said. My next question was as much tongue in cheek as anything, as quite honestly, there was nothing for miles around. But I felt I should probably ask.
“Where is the ticket office?”
“Back there, 4 miles. How did you drive through roadblock?”
And then it dawned on me. My Uber driver had indeed driven through a roadblock. But as he was Egyptian and Uber vehicles are not obviously designated so, he was let drive through without me buying a ticket from the “ticket office”.
And so he looked at me quite angrily, as if I was a monster, robbing them of their only tourist wages of the day, which, in all fairness to him, I probably was. And so he called a cab (why drive me himself, when he could make me pay a local “taxi-man” to do the honourable duty?) and sat me down with the train of his gun nudging me in the right direction, and then fixed on me as I sat. I reached into my bag to get something. Foolish move. The gun swung round to a more threatening position.
Well wasn’t this a nice way to end my Pyramid experience. Me, a friendly gunman, and 35 degrees of sunshine. I thought that as an Irishman I should at least make the most of one of those. So I rolled my sleeves up and lay back to enjoy the warm rays on my skin, much to the annoyance of my newly found acquaintance, who twitched his gun at every minute movement. Little did he know I just didn’t want my biceps browner than my triceps.
And so my taxi arrived, and I was escorted firmly into the back of it and deposited 4 miles later at the “ticket office” where under gunpoint, I was made to pay.
“Six hundred Egyptian Pounds please”
Or so I could imagine he said, given that he typed the same on the calculator. The price had clearly gone up a bit since Lonely Planet was last written, or my fines for trespassing were larger than I had thought they might be. I opened my wallet to reveal the barren extent of it. Not wanting to smile, but realising the hilarity of doing it, I passed him my debit card instead and looked hopeful.
He grabbed it from me, spent three minutes fingering it and looking over it, as if a new toy had just been given to him at Christmas (only I could imagine probably not at Christmas, given the country I was in).
He called his Police friend over but quite quickly shook their heads. No card payment here. But at least I had offered to pay, right?
Seeing this as the most advantage I would ever have in this exchange with gun-wielding ticket-office Policemen, I asked him a polite question.
“Where is ATM?”
And again, after his blank stare:
He looked blankly at me. I gave the international sign language signal for an ATM (or at least, what I thought was a good shout at pretending to be an ATM, as a human) and pointed off the opposite direction to the pyramids, down the road.
“You need taxi? You not survive desert.”
I shook my head. Cautiously taking one step at a time away from the desk and past the Police officers, I nervously walked off into the desert, not intending to return.
The one who showed the most alarm for this whole ruse of finding an ATM was my “taxi driver” from the pyramid who clearly saw his return passenger walking off into the desert without paying a single iota, and correctly understood that he wouldn’t be getting any fare that day. But by the time he piped up, it was too late, an I was beyond the perimeter by which anyone would care and safely off into the wilderness.**
1 kilometre down the road I stopped to look back, to check I was not being followed. From here, I would hide and order my Uber (which, of course, does not need cash), and head off to the next adventure – The Tourist Pyramids of Giza – where thankfully no gunmen were to be seen.
**If it had been possible to give them the normal entry fee, or the taxi fare without having been given far greater fines and risked my safety, I would have done. This is not to encourage avoidance of fees or payments, which many local people will dearly need to survive.