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What am I doing here? Visiting the Pyramids of Egypt on Horseback

Vago Damitio. What am I doing here?
Sefrou, Morocco
28 NOV 2012

The truth is, I’m currently back in Sefrou where I just finished writing the first draft of a novel called The Keys of the Riad. I’ve been writing, playing with my 15 month old daughter, editing, and putting together a newsletter where I share my writing (please sign up here – It’s free). The truth is though, I’ve been wanting to share the details of my visit to the Pyramids a few months ago. Right now may not be the safest time to go, but you’ll probably have the same kind of crowd free experience I had – and I can tell you – well,actually… read on…

The Pyramids

My first view of the pyramidsI don’t know how mind blowing the pyramids must have been before there was tourist infrastructure and aggressive touts, but judging by how astounding they still are today they must have completely blown the fucking minds of every person who came upon them. I know they blew my mind.

 My driver picked me up at 8 am and we drove out towards Giza but continued on to Saqqara, home of the oldest of all the pyramids, the famous step pyramid which the Egyptian government (or someone) seems to be in the act of rebuilding. This pyramid is considered to be the one that started the whole trend. Nearly 7000 years old, it was built for King Djosar by the great Egyptian architect Imhotep. Surrounding the pyramid are many complexes of buildings which it seems no Egyptologists have firmly labeled yet. In other words, nobody knows – except for perhaps the touts who will be more than likely to tell you the definitive answer.Whether what they say is true or not…well that brings me to the old joke…How do you know when a tour guide is lying? His lips are moving.

saqqara pyramid at gizaDespite my driver’s warnings about the aggressive touts – I found them to be much less hassle than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or the medinas in Fez or Marrakech – of course, there were only about ten touts there and I was the only tourist that I saw – I was dressed in black like the foremen of the construction and I spoke enough Arabic I think they all thought I was an engineer working there. Which was cool because I just wandered wherever I wanted and told the guys who told me I couldn’t go there that it was no problem.

Now is the time to come to Egypt if you want to experience the Pyramids, Luxor, or other amazing ancient places without crowds. The touts though, are tricky – several asked for my ticket and then said come with me – which sounded official but was actually just a way to give me a tour and grab a tip or fee – but I already know that trick and took my ticket back and walked away ignoring them.

Memphis Temple ComplexIn fact, I’m pretty sure that I ignored some real security as I walked past the construction fence and into the areas marked closed. It was just me on the ground and all the slaves, eh, workers doing whatever they were doing to the pyramids above. Just me and a 7000 year old pyramid – leather bags full of pot shards, an open door that led down into where-ever it led – the tomb? The burial chamber? I don’t know. It was dark and I didn’t have a light. I didn’t really want to fall into a 500 foot shaft and have some future archaeologist find me and say “Hey, what’s this guy doing here?” as he picks apart my bones and examines my Turkish shoes. But, I touched the pyramid. In fact, I pissed on it. I marked it as my territory. I had to go and there was no one there…
inside the temple complex at saqqaraThe step pyramid is only one part of a vast burial complex that
served the city of Memphis (not Tennessee). There are several more pyramids in various states of disrepair in the area. Our next stop was a series of old kingdom tombs where the touts were slightly more aggressive and annoying. I attribute this to a busload of Mexican tourists who arrived at the same time as I did and that there was no construction going on to confuse things.

The touts began directing people where to go, closing doors to parts of the complex, and enforcing the no picture and no camera rules – until they would get a tourist alone and then they would say “You want me to take your picture in here? It’s okay. Just give me a dollar.” Frankly, this bothered me more than the touting – the rule is there to protect these treasures and preserve the feeling of specialness inside the monuments – I therefore declined, as did most of the Mexicans.

I saw one of the touts manage to get a couple of bucks from one old woman, but mostly, they were just annoying everyone. The police ignore it and I’ve heard, they sometimes even participate.In post Arab-Spring Egypt, tourism is way down and the economy isn’t doing so hot either. People have to make a buck and support their families, that’s not always so pleasant for those of us who are fortunate enough to be visiting.

In fact, though, it’s less pleasant for the Egyptians than for us…something to keep in mind if you visit. As we drove to Saqqara, we passed dozens of “Carpet Schools”. I asked my driver and he said that in this region, people are very poor and can’t afford to send their children to school. The children have to work at an early age. Families send them to ‘Carpet School’ where they work 9-12 hour days weaving rugs. As the driver explained “You and I can’t do that work for that long because it will destroy our eyesight and give us arthritis.” My heart broke as I realized what he was telling me – these ‘Carpet Schools’ are child sweat shops to make Egyptian rugs.

From Saqqara, we drove to Giza. My driver wanted to stop at a perfume factory but I told him I wasn’t interested. He wanted to go to the Papyrus Museum (another factory) but again I wasn’t interested. Suddenly, he was less interested in me. He told me the price to get in the pyramids, explained how big the complex was, told me about horse and camel rentals but wouldn’t tell me the total price.

Nobody there but us sphnixesHe was a nice guy, my driver. An old guy with a funny habit of saying “Do you understand?” where most people say “You know?” I don’t know how much he makes for the tour without the commission, but it must be disappointing when a cheapskate like me comes along and doesn’t buy the expensive souvenirs like carpets, perfumes, and papyrus.

The horse renter gave me his spiel and offered me a special discounted price of 280 EGP for a 1-2 hour horse with a Beduin guide to make sure you return the horse and tell the touts to leave you alone. That’s about $45 – the private day tour was $30. My wife’s an Arab, she’s made me into an Arab in some ways.  I haggle and I haggle hard. We ended up at 160 EGP which is about $25 US and included $10 for the entry ticket.

My beduin horseback guide a GizaMy horseback guide, Alex, kept all the touts away from us as we took the long ride around the plateau so that I was able to truly experience the majesty of the pyramids at Giza and the feeling of what it is like to be alone in the desert with the Great Pyramids – on a horse. I’ve never specifically wondered what it would be like to ride an Arabian horse across the Giza Plateau and be alone with the Pyramids – but now I know.

Alone with a horse and a beduin and the pyramidsAs we rode up to the Sphinx, I saw the seats from the Sound and Light Show of the Pyramids – the seats don’t appear to have changed since the movie Moonraker where James Bond fights with ‘Jaws’ at the pyramids. Inside the temple of the Sphinx, there were no more than ten people. Jaws wasn’t there. The touts tried the ticket trick again, and failed again, and Alex waited outside with the horses. I asked the Sphinx a question and the answer was a riddle.

We rode back into Giza town like cowboy movie heroes on funny saddles with funny stirrups. My driver offered to take me to a few more locations to buy souvenirs, but I told him to just take me back to the hotel. We were supposed to see the famous Red Pyramid, but honestly, I’d already seen everything I needed to.

I’ll go back to see the Red Pyramid another time. Inchallah.

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Vago Damitio

Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook

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