A bowl of piping hot and sour tomato soup really perked me up that morning, instantly washing down the exhaustion from the 10 hours flight. Refreshed, I was ready to enjoy my first day in Egypt. I left my buddy's apartment and got into Khaleed’s black and white, dusty taxi. It must have been an ancient Lada 1200 or Fiat 124 or something similar. Be nice to Khaleed ‘cos your life depends on him today, said my buddy, Toni.
Khaleed is a driver frequently hired by Toni’s humanitarian organization and apparently, the best English-speaking driver around. We didn’t talk much though, not because he was unpleasant but I was busily observing and mostly amazed by the new world that surrounded me. This burly middle-aged man was cheerful and would often sing along to the Arabic songs played on the radio. It was only at certain times that he would appear more serious while muttering silent prayers.
Where you want to go? asked Khaleed.
Let’s start with the Giza plateau…and if time permits, we’ll head to Saqqara as well.
He must have thought that I was mad.
The Giza Plateau
I have no doubt that Khaleed is a good man. Too good, sometimes. As I queued to get an entrance ticket, touts started talking to him, perhaps trying to book me. The innocent Khaleed must have believed or sympathized this dude proclaiming to be an authorized tour guide appointed by the government and was offering his service for FREE. I had faith in Khaleed, who appeared convinced, and went with the flow. After a while, he left me with the dude and went back to the parking lot. The dude’s insistence that I should ride a horse or camel was annoying to say the least. A walk around the Pyramid of Khufu later, I gave him a tip (for he did, afterall, introduce me to things not mentioned in my tour guide) and walked away. Although the dude was smart enough to demand for American dollars, he wasn't aware of the value of the Malaysian Ringgit and reluctantly accepted my RM5. Well, it's still green, isn't it?
The first sight of the Great Pyramid of Khufu was already overwhelming, as we drove nearer to the plateau via the sandy Sharia al-Haram. Measuring above 130 metres in height, it was much larger that I’d imagined. How the Egyptians constructed the massive tomb remains unanswered. I’m sure it’s not as dramatic as told in Transformers - Revenge Of The Fallen. Perhaps it involved a bit of magic but I believe it’s mostly science. Take the stacking of limestone blocks to form the outer walls of the pyramids, for example. It must have been intended for a refrigeration system to maintain a low temperature condition inside the pyramids. I discovered this when I placed my hands on a limestone block for support while taking a picture of the Sphinx. It was cold, despite the heat from the roaring sun. The Egyptians were brilliant.
3 hours on and I was still circling the plateau, staring at the capped Pyramid of Khafre, observing the camel/horse rental business that wasn't very brisk, contemplating on the gender of the Sphinx and be entertained by the thousands of tourists from all over the world that joined me in celebrating one of the ancient wonders of the world that late morning.
Khaleed offered me some fresh mandarins (with stems still attached!) as we made our way to the desert of Saqqara (not to be be confused with the Sahara). The cold and juicy fruit was the perfect nourishment for the Egyptian climate. I must have had 3 or 4 along the journey.
Although the ancient burial site of Saqqara is only about 30 kilometres from Cairo, the journey took more than an hour as we had to pass through villages connected by muddy, bumpy and narrow roads. That and the fact that Khaleed got sort of lost and had to ask for directions. It's not his fault because not many people would want to come here after being captivated by the Great Pyramid. But this was where it all began - where the first ever Egyptian pyramid was built. It's called the Pyramid of Djoser or more commonly known as the Step Pyramid. It only reached about a fifth of the height of the Pyramid of Khufu/Khafre but these six mastabas were believed to have ignited the drive for a perfect pyramid. Perhaps.
It's warmer here at Saqqara. Passing through the countless cooling limestone pillars to get to the pyramid was comforting. It's like the relief one gets when entering an air-conditioned shopping mall. Saqqara was a more intimate affair. Less tourists meant less touts and more quiet moments to appreciate the science and beauty of these ancient structures set against the vast, humbling desert of Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt.
I had this crazy idea of venturing even further to the desert of Dahsur. That's where the Bent Pyramid is located. It's only another 10 kilometres from here but Khaleed wouldn't have agreed for sure as it was already 3 pm and Khaleed's only request for the day was to be back at Cairo before 4 pm.
It had already passed Khaleed's bedtime when we reached the city of Cairo, given the horrendous evening traffic. As Khaleed left for home, I got into a cafe at Mohandiseen and ordered myself some juice while waiting for an unforgettable dinner later that night. I was scanning through the photographs I took that day when the mandarins from my bag called out for me. And I knew I had to take in just one more!