I was officially stuck on top of a camel. Even after two weeks in this scandalous country, I had managed to fall into yet another obvious scam. A young boy had approached me at the base of the Great Pyramid in Giza and sweet talked me into climbing onto his camel for a picture.
It seemed harmless enough; camels are pretty docile, and I was not obligated to pay for a ride. Just a quick snapshot and I would hop down. I knew I was in trouble when as soon as I positioned my bottom in the cloth saddle, the boy issued a command to the camel in a secret language that only the two speak and the blasted thing stood up. My feet dangled on each of its hairy sides a desperate four feet from the ground.
There was no graceful way to dismount or jump off; we all three knew that. So there I sat, with the boy standing on the ground a few feet away from me, holding my camera, and showing me his yellow teeth in a victorious grin.
Ominous inquisitions from friends and family rang through my head: “Isn’t Egypt a dangerous place to travel?”
It would soon prove dangerous enough for two of us if the camel didn’t let me down soon.
Ten minutes later I was still on top of the infernal beast. Both of us were having a sweat marathon under the Egyptian sun, but there was no doubt his hump would win out over my beer gut for hydration reserves. The boy refused to let me down until I committed to an expensive ride or offered the equivalent in a bribe known all over Egypt as “baksheesh.”
I asked the boy to at least take my picture as he had promised; he agreed. So I held the reins with as much dignity as I could muster and turned my head sideways to look at the camera. I did my best to hide my rising blood pressure for the picture and to look like I was having fun. I mean, after all, I was at the base of the Great Pyramid on top of a camel in Egypt!
Prisoner on top of a camel, that is. The waiting game continued for another several minutes until finally the kid saw a look in my eyes that indicated an eminent explosion was about to occur. Hardly an exaggeration: I was about to go into survival mode, let out my combat howl, and start snapping hairy necks.
I threw some coins at him after he let me down and wandered off to a safe distance where I could curse his mother properly without being distracted by someone else wanting to sell me something.
And so, having spent a full month in Egypt, I would dig myself out of one predicament only to step into another carefully laid within eyesight of the first. Sadly, I have always considered myself a savvy adventure traveler. I have managed to blunder all over Southeast Asia without getting myself killed or maimed; even surviving encounters with landmines, bamboo vipers, and Kiwi backpackers who had not washed their dreadlocks since the bungee operation had dipped them.
Egypt was different though. Egypt was tough. There were times that I doubted myself; maybe the warnings were true?
Hordes of low-paid police officers walked around, fully equipped with machine guns, black berets, and a standard facial expression you would expect to see on a chewing cow. They all had thick, black mustaches; Saddam Hussein may still be alive and I may have seen him at least 12 times.
I learned early not to ask one of these guys for help. First, they spoke no English. Second, not only did they speak no English, somehow my request for simple directions to the bus station one day had been misinterpreted as something hostile. Charades gone wrong; I ask for a bus and instead start a coup?
I rarely smoke, but happened to have a package of Marlboro Red cigarettes in my daybag. I didn’t have to ask if anyone smoked: I could see black lips quivering on the officers circled around me as I pulled the pack out. I passed the stale smokes around and instantly peace was made for whatever infraction I had committed earlier.
Apparently, as in prison, cigarettes pass as currency in Egypt under certain circumstances.
Walking home from a museum that day I met an Egyptian man wearing a stained gray robe. He spoke some English so we walked together and chatted a bit.
“Come,” he said, “let’s go smoke shisha.”
I am an addicted, idiot backpacker. My head would pop off if I turned down any new opportunity to do something cultural with a local. And so we went to a little side street coffee shop nearby with red, plastic tables and folding chairs nestled outside right in the best street filth that Cairo could provide.
Smoking shisha is a national pastime in Egypt, maybe even a competitive sport. Muslims aren’t supposed to drink much, so instead they sit around and smoke themselves to oblivion through huge, decorated pipes. Only the men are technically allowed to smoke in public, but the women smoke every bit as much in the privacy of their homes.
It’s a full-on smoke-a-thon pretty much at any time of day or night.
I am convinced that the man across from me was a walking, talking shisha pipe. He had smoked so much that his teeth were nearly gone, his lips were black, and every now and then as he talked, a wisp of smoke would pop out of his nose like a dragon — even when he wasn’t smoking.
Luckily, he spoke good English so we enjoyed a great chat about the Egyptian people and culture. He ordered up our pipes with a twinkle in his eye, and when the waiter brought the tall, water-filled beauties, he insisted on paying.
“My treat,” he said proudly and with a hiss of smoke, “Welcome to Egypt.”
I thanked him many times and took a long drag from one of the pipes. My primary lung collapsed and my backup lung was on the brink; I nearly coughed them out of my body.
I had been expecting the usual tourist, pansy flavors like vanilla or strawberry, hippie stuff, but instead had received a mouthful of old-burning-tire flavor. I should have known that this guy would have graduated up from strawberry shisha a long time ago — probably when he was three years old.
The old man looked at me in anticipation. I was turning green.
“It’s delicious!” I lied, trying to preserve our fragile new friendship. “What is it?”
I could feel the teeth start to loosen in my gums already. I can’t remember what his answer was, but he said that the flavor was his favorite and that it was very strong tobacco. No joke.
Somehow I finished the shisha and thanked my host between coughing spasms for the cultural experience. I decided that I had enough of Cairo and made my way to the train station to purchase a ticket for Luxor. Ancient Luxor is an archeologist’s dream way down the Nile in the south of Egypt.
A day later I was standing in the famous Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Every now and then a cough or a sneeze would result in the escape of more smoke from somewhere deep inside my chest. I had been transformed into a shishah-breathing dragon like the rest of them.
Valley of the Kings was an incredible experience. In fact, I enjoyed it much more than the pyramids, maybe because there were no touts or ill-tempered camels walking around. I became friends with two Swedish guys and we set off to explore the tomb of Seti together.
Posted all over the outside were signs that read “no cameras.” The logic was that the paint in the hieroglyphics had not been exposed to light in thousands of years, and idiot tourists would never remember to turn the flash off on their cameras. The Swedish guys carried a nice SLR camera and had no intentions of leaving it in the hands of a stranger that looked even more sketchy than the police officers. So we kept our cameras hidden as we went down the stone steps inside into the darkness.
Every inch of the walls were covered in colorful hieroglyphics and told a fascinating story. Call me the world’s worst backpacker, but there was no way I was bringing a camera in here without getting a picture. I made sure that my flash was off and started snapping sneaky shots of everything that I could. My buddy had the same idea with his SLR, and within minutes we had an angry Egyptian official standing in front of us and demanding our cameras. Busted!
Arabic is a very harsh language indeed when someone is using it to hurl insults at you.
I decided to take a gamble based on everything that I had learned in this country and said just one word:
I said this powerful word in the form of a question and it worked. Instantly the man’s scowl was replaced with a smile as we traded a few dirty Egyptian bills for our precious cameras. Passing baksheesh isn’t always considered corruption; it is more or less just a daily business transaction for these guys.
Then the guy caught me off guard. I had assumed that we would have to leave the tomb immediately and that we were officially on thin ice. Not quite.
“Anything else you want picture?” He asked me in broken English. He pointed around the tomb at various places of interest and then it hit me: He wanted to make sure we got all the pictures we wanted! Now that is service. I chuckled a little under my breath and another wisp of smoke escaped my nostril.
I decided that if there was ever a time to press my luck in Egypt, now was the time. I pointed to the official that had confiscated our cameras. He gave me a flabbergasted look, but now I know that it was a look of flattery and not disgust. He smiled, threw his arms around my two Swedish friends, and posed for the ultimate picture which I proudly took. Who else can say they have a picture inside a tomb, surrounded by ancient Egyptian art, standing next to the guy that gets paid to make sure no pictures are taken of that same art?
Something broke inside of me deep in that ancient tomb. I realized that people are people all over the world and they generally just want to be happy. I invited our new uniformed friend to shisha with us later. He accepted.
“My treat.” I hissed.
So, after one month of wandering around Egypt in and out of trouble, I learned to survive. Always keep strong cigarettes, a pocketful of baksheesh money, beware of camels and mysterious shisha, and keep your cool. People are people wherever you go.