Monday, June 29, 2015

An education at the Pyramids of Giza

It began with the chaos and scams of a visit to any other famous tourist site: Angkor Wat, The Eiffel Tower, The Grand Bazaar... After entering through the gates of the pyramids, our taxi driver let someone into the passenger seat, (arising suspicion that something fishy was going on), who seemed to direct the driver where to drop us off. Our taxi driver then let us off in the touristic area where people start tours of the pyramids by horse and carriage (confirming suspicion, as our taxi driver probably gets a cut if we spend our money on a horse and carriage). Our taxi then tried to charge us 100 pounds for a ride that cost 15 pounds according to the meter. I refused, of course, and handed him 15 as he asked for 50. I got out of the car and then he asked for 20. Then I said no and he said "you are right" and left. I guess he was just trying his luck.

Once we were out of the taxi, we were swarmed by several carriage drivers offering tours of the pyramids by horse. After insisting that we didn't want to hire a carriage - with a man walking alongside us with an empty carriage, lowering his price with every step, "80... okay 70" - we had to walk the sandy path out of the tourist trap to enter the pyramids at the actual entrance.

My patience was being tested in a real way, in addition to the sweaty heat, and we weren't even inside the grounds of the pyramids yet.

Once at the gates, we bought our tickets, a little over $10 apiece, and entered through the turnstiles. The pyramids looked bigger now than they had when they were peeking through the passing buildings as we approached in our taxi. They also seemed a lot more peaceful...

A few meters in, a man asked to see our tickets, and we refused as we'd already had them checked. We were asked a few other times, and surely unsuspecting tourists have been led astray by vendors posing as ticket inspectors.

As we walked toward the biggest pyramid of all, several camel owners offered to give us two hour camel rides around the pyramids. One camel owner in particular walked alongside us and seemed very keen to talk to us. While we chatted with him about the names of the different pyramids, several other camel owners came to offer rides, and we made use of our limited Arabic: "La, shukran" (meaning "no thank you"). This seemed to disperse the vendors, but one hat vendor came up to us after the others had left, confiding in us that he despises the culture of harassing tourists.

"Look around. There are just no tourists here now, since the revolution".

He was right. Where were all the group tours and families I expected to see? Where were the other backpackers? I realized then that we nearly had the whole pyramids to ourselves.

It was nice for us, but for the vendors and camel owners, it must be a true time of stress. Where hundreds of tourists used to flock every day, now there are only a few dozen. What effect does this have on someone who purchased a camel in the heydey of tourism? Now, the prospects of finding someone to hire your camel for the day look dismal.

By noon, several of the camel owners had given up trying to give rides that day, and we watched a group of them ride off together. I felt a pang of guilt for not supporting them.

The hat vendor walked with us, not selling, but explaining. He talked about the revolution, and how the country is in a counter-revolution now. He asked us to tell our friends about our visit to Egypt, and to encourage others to visit now. He said "most places" in the country are safe for tourists. The stroll became an education about current issues in Egypt.

As we walked along, I felt the magnitude of the ancient history in front of me, of a time completely disconnected from the major current events still unfolding in the nearby capital. I felt surprised at how quiet it was there in the desert.

It's strange to be a tourist sometimes. We are temporary, visiting for a moment a place where many make their livelihood. The dollars we exchange into pounds that we spend on a camel ride, or a souvenir, or a bottle of water, are someone's salary.

Upon exiting the pyramids, taking in the whole view through a fence, I realized I hadn't learned anything about the ancient monuments I'd been walking around. I don't know which pyramid is which, or which one was built first or last. What I had learned was about a nation's struggle to go on with daily life during a time of major social and political change.

We found a taxi to bring us back to the city centre, and stared out the windows as the city went by.

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