I am just back from Egypt. Happily, during my visit, there were no untoward incidents like the recent bombing in a Cairo bazaar. But I was spending more time outside the capital than in it. On this visit, I did not do such obvious touristic things as bazaar shopping, riding a camel or climbing a pyramid. I did, however, as a memento of my trip, buy a small stuffed camel that sings in Arabic when I press his stomach.
This was not my first visit to Egypt, but it was guaranteed because, on my first trip there — long ago in 1958 — I did do touristic things. I clambered to the top of the 450-foot high pyramid of Cheops. Anyone who did, I was told, would return someday.
Last week, when I looked up at Cheops soaring above me, I wondered how I had ever, half a century ago, managed to reach its top. I decided I owed it all to Mohammed Hassan who, with his flowing gallabiyyah fluttering in the wind, hauled me from step to step, and to Theodore, an Arab-speaking student from the University of Athens, who had encouraged my ascent. Now, one can no longer climb up Cheops, for its own sake and — probably — for the sake of intrepid (or foolhardy) travelers like me who were determined to scale it at all costs.
My notes from that adventure inform me that it took us half an hour to make the climb; that my knees were raw by the time we reached the top; that my ballet shoes tumbled halfway down at one point and Mohammed Hassan had to crawl after them, assuring me all the time that I was safe with him even if my shoes were not.
When we stood at the very summit of this gigantic burial pyramid of 2800 B.C., rated by the Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Mohammed exclaimed, “My beautiful blue-eyed lady, now you will be coming back.”
As for a camel ride it seemed to me that there were fewer camels to choose from now than on that first Egyptian trip, and the ones I saw were scruffier than Christopher Columbus, my mount of long ago. Actually, it had been he who had selected me then.
Theodore and I had just emerged from a bus from Cairo and Christopher Columbus (as his owner quickly informed me he was called) had nuzzled up to me with his full lips quivering against my receding ones. Startled, I could think of nothing to say to his owner but, politely, “Cute camel.” That was when I learned the camel’s name.
“Cute camel is Christopher Columbus,” his owner had proudly informed me. “Christopher Columbus especially likes beautiful American ladies like you. Cute camel Christopher Columbus can do tricks if you will ride him.”
Of course, I had succumbed. While Theodore rode off on a horse, I climbed onto Christopher Columbus who had plunked himself into the sand to make it easy for me. I climbed onto his hump ready to take my ride, bur Christopher Columbus had closed his eyes. I waited patiently for him to wake up. His owner, less patiently, shouted at him and then danced furiously in front of him in the sand-flinging his gallabiyyah all around him. Finally, Christopher Columbus opened his eyes, laboriously raised his rump and then his forequarters and took me for a rockin’ n’ rollin’ ride. I had hoped to go as far as the Sphinx, but Christopher’s owner said he wouldn’t like that. The Sphinx was too mysterious for him and he always shied away from it. Camels, he informed me, were straightforward, friendly creatures with an antipathy to oddities like the Sphinx.
In any case, I had my ride — though it was a short one. I had barely accustomed myself to Christopher’s gait, however, when he collapsed like a folding chair back onto the sand. First, I dived forward as his front went down, then lurched back as his hindquarters descended. His owner said he was terribly sorry, but Christopher Columbus, clearly, needed food before he did any more work.
“How much, dear beautiful lady, will you pay for your ride?”
When I proffered a handful of French francs (still a usable currency in those days), Christopher Columbus’s owner sniffed imperiously and said I hadn’t even provided enough for a sugar cube for Christopher. Looking at today’s bedraggled camels, I wondered if they ever got sugar cubes — if, indeed, camels like munching on them.
Today’s camels and their owners seemed more aggressive than those of a half-century ago. Certainly there was none I saw with the charm of Christopher Columbus (who, once I had dismounted, was introduced to a French customer as Sarah Bernhardt and who had, the customer was informed, “great theatrical sense”).
I did try to photograph one of the Giza camels last week, but his owner got between me and the camel and demanded 50 Egyptian pounds — $10 for a picture. Photogenic though the camel was (though not so photogenic as Christopher Columbus had been), I declined. I am sure, however, that — in the way of all Egyptians — his owner would have reduced the price from 50 to 40 to 30 to 20 Egyptian pounds for ”my beautiful blue-eyed lady” if I had been able to stay long enough.
Though I missed out this time on the camel ride and the pyramid climb, I did go on a Nile cruise and twice went sailing in a felucca — a single-sailed boat used to transport goods across the Nile in the past, but today used largely to carry tourists.
Fond as I am of sailboats, of course I was delighted at the prospect of a felucca trip that would show me Cairo from the water at sunrise.
I also visited the towering temples of Karnak and Abu Simbel. I made a mini-climb up 110 steps to one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. I took a boat to the sacred island where the temple of Philae rises. All of it, of course, was remarkable. And it was all thanks, I am sure, to that promise of Mohammed Hassan’s when I proved an intrepid pyramid-climber 51 years ago.