Saturday, October 17, 2009

Amid the Pyramids


You're meeting your friend's friend at a metro station from where you're taking a taxi to get to the pyramids. You've rushed through a brief shower—not only did your train from Luxor arrive in Cairo late that morning, but the water in Nancy’s apartment was turned off temporarily—and jumped on a train and now you’re at the station, on time, breathless. Waiting for Samir. He’s big, you were told. Glasses. Wide smile. He’ll be there.

35 minutes later, Samir arrives, his smile widening as you tap your watch impatiently. He placates you with lunch—you are also starving, you realize—and then you’re both in a taxi and on your way to see the pyramids. Yes, the PYRAMIDS! You and Samir are exchanging chatterboxy introductions, when suddenly, driving on an overpass, you think you see vague triangles in the distance. You’re holding your breath, and you release it with a whoosh. You want to ask Samir if those are what you think they are, but you point dumbly instead.

Your reverie is interrupted by a young boy who is now running alongside your taxi, now hopping into the front seat—all while the taxi is moving, of course. He starts reciting deals and bargains for you and Samir to take horse and camel rides to the various pyramids, all of which Samir wisely declines. You buy your tickets and walk through the gates and the first thing you see is the Sphinx and you fall silent a second time.

It is beautiful; never mind that the Arabic name for the Sphinx translates to “father of fear.” It is all contours and curves and eroded elegance, almost delicate. With poise and stony serenity, the Sphinx sits guard to the three tombs behind it, a preface to three triangular chapters of history, the Pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure.

The pyramids are endless, each boulder marking an impossibility of time, strength, labor and grandeur that converged to create these structures. The scale is deafening—how did people manually drag such large stones so high up? Egyptian police loiter and assist tourists with signature tourist pictures: look look, you are taller than a pyramid!

You run back to the entrance to buy a ticket to go inside the Pyramid of Khufu. Inside it is dark, cool, almost cosy, and you snake your way down the narrow, steep sloping corridor towards the room at the center of the pyramid containing the tomb. It’s empty—robbed centuries ago, of course—which is a marvel in itself, and you have to silence your laughter when a panting tourist erupts, “that’s it?!” Yes, this labyrinth of tunnels and chambers inside this manmade Wonder of the World is it, sir. Sorry to disappoint.

You erupt from this stone volcano triumphant, elated. The pyramids! You walk the grounds a little longer with Samir, trying to get used to these steps of history slanting away from you, saluting the sun, everywhere you look. Eventually it is evening and the sun kisses them goodnight on its way down as you and Samir digest the visit over tiny cups of tea at his favorite tea shop. You’re smiling widely, too.

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