When I imagine visiting a spot as famous and as touristy as the Taj Mahal, I think about my seeming inability to refuse the goods and services of local peddlers. Historically, I am too desperate to be liked to say, “No”. Consider my experience in Cairo three years ago.
I am standing in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken facing the Giza pyramids. My taxi-driver deposited me here with no instructions and only a promise to return in three hours. The sun is directly above me, casting no shade, only the dusty heat that slowly swirls around me – promising, but not delivering, a breeze. The gravely sand crunches under my feet as I shift, looking for a ticket booth. Rising from a dip in the landscape, the pyramids loom in the distance, easily as far as twenty, maybe more, city blocks away. The KFC behind me is a boarded up shell of a building. I briefly marvel that a KFC wouldn’t continue to thrive at one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world.
Of course, I am not a tourist. I like to think of myself as a world traveler. I was born and raised overseas. , I know a thing or two about visiting foreign countries, unlike the man walking toward me wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Drink till I look better”. In deference to cultural custom, I’m wearing long pants and a blouse with sleeves that cover my shoulders. It’s important to me to belie the “ugly American stereotype”.
My brother, Keir, lives in Cairo with his wife and baby daughter. I’m here to visit him and write an article on camping in the Sahara Desert. If I am a world traveler, Keir and Robyn are citizens of the world. They’ve lived on the Ivory Coast, China, North Korea, and in several countries where their mail gets routinely stolen and where political coups and bombings are routine. As far as I can discern, Keir only feels comfortable when his life is threatened. Unlike my brother, I am a traveler but not a big risk-taker. Unless you consider going to the London production of “Blood Brothers” starring David Cassidy taking a risk. As, indeed, it turned out to be. When I hit my mid-forties, I resolved to push my risk-taking ventures beyond culinary, cultural, and sartorial arenas, which is the deeper reason for this trip. And, last night, my brother unwittingly gave me a real challenge, in the form of an ominous warning about the pyramids, “Whatever you do, don’t get on a camel.”
“I’m not even tempted,” I said. “I’m afraid of heights, being hijacked, and being bitten – all of which come to mind when I look at a camel. I’m also afraid of rats, being beheaded, and unexplained rashes, but I assume that’s not coming into play here.”
“Everyone says they’re not getting on the camel,” said Keir. “But they all do. The guides at the pyramids have been ripping off tourists for two thousand years. They can read people. Read their weaknesses.”
“They’re going to shove a rat in my face?”
“No. It’s more psychological. You’ll see.”
“You underestimate me,” I said, “I haggled with a woman selling painted eggs in Kiev and got her to throw in three sets of napkin rings. For free.”
Keir walked over to his shelves, pulled out a fat photo album, and flipped to a page of photographs showing a couple riding atop a camel, looking very uncomfortable.
“That’s Jamie and Ken,” Keir said, “they said there was no way they’d get on a camel. He’s an army ranger and she’s a motivational speaker. They got on the camel because they felt sorry for the guide.” Keir flipped a few more pages of the photo album and pointed to a big man on a camel, “That’s Charles. He said he’d never get on a camel. He used to be a heroin addict and now he’s a human rights activist working in Tehran. Cynical as hell. Charles said that he felt like the guide could see into his soul.”
“I’m not falling for that shit,” I said.
“All I’m saying is, don’t even go near a camel,” Keir said. “If you do, you will walk out of there with absolutely no money or pride left.”
I look at a group of tourists walking toward me as I feel in my pocket for my money. An Egyptian man materializes beside me, quite literally taking shape as if from the crunchy sand and dusty air. “I am Mohammed Mustafa and I can take you to the entrance and show you the pyramids in my carriage,” he says pointing to a yellow cart hitched to an unhappy donkey.
Until this very moment, I have thought that I was going to figure this whole thing out on my own. Including the part where I walk around three pyramids that are so large they can be seen from space, all by myself. But I can’t even see the entrance. And the distance to the very first pyramid looks like it will take at least an hour to walk. In this heat?
I say to Mohammed Mustafa in a friendly, but firm and savvy, fashion, “I will set a price with you and that will be it. No more.” I pause to look him confidently in the eye, “What is your price?”
He tells me that it is twenty pounds. I say, “Great. Also, just so we understand each other, I will not be riding a camel today.”
Mohammed Mustafa shrugs amicably, “Why you don’t like camels?”
I say, “Oh, I like camels. I am a nice person. I simply want to save my camel riding for another time.”
Mohammed Mustafa shrugs as if to say, OK, you’re just another camel-hating American bitch. But I deal with this all the time, so what can I do?
He leads me to the his rickety carriage and shows me where to plant my feet in order to step up and inelegantly fling myself onto the seat, which happens to be right next to him. And we’re off. Mohammed Mustafa launches into a rote monologue about the history of the pyramids as he drives me away from the pyramids and through the streets of what looks like the sets of any Bible movie before it’s destroyed by a black cloud of locusts. I dismiss my knee-jerk American concern that Mohammed Mustafa could be kidnapping me for all I know. The scene before me looks so exotic that I start imagine the documentary of my bold and adventurous trip to a land untouched by time. In the voice-over I would sound like Christiane Amanpour and my conservative blouse would be replaced by a khaki flack jacket.
I hired a local, Mohammed Mustafa, to guide me through the rough terrain of the Sahara so that I could look upon the ancient majesty of the pyramids and the face of the famously enigmatic Sphinx. Mohammed Mustafa has vowed to be my guide on this treacherous road. I have no choice but to trust him. Even though our relations briefly broke down following my refusal to ride a camel.
The carriage jogs quickly to the left and I see the pyramids again. My trust has been rewarded. I see a small Kiosk where people stand in line to buy tickets, but our cart is waved through. Clearly Mohammed Mustafa is connected. He keeps up a tour guide patter as we drive past the first pyramid and toward the second. We stop a couple of times for him to take a picture of me. Each time, he asks for twenty pounds. I feel awful quibbling over what is essentially three dollars. Am I really that petty? So I hand over the money, each time reminding him that I am a good person. We made a deal. He should treat me fairly and this is the last time I will give him money.
When we reach the second pyramid, I ask if he will stop so I can get close to it. The walk to its base is longer than I guessed, sitting in the carriage. As I traverse the distance, easily a football field long, I realize that this is because the pyramid is so huge. It feels close because it’s all I can see. When I finally get near enough to reach out and touch it, I am amazed at how rough it is. From a distance, the sides look smooth. Up close, it is clear that the silhouette is created by rocks forming jagged steps that narrow as they meet at the apex far above me, piercing the blue sky. As I walk along the edge of the pyramid, I try to stay with my jumbled thoughts. I feel small and unimportant. But that thought, far from being frightening, is liberating. In one flash I understand that I am simply passing through time. That thought is replaced by another and another. I am part of everything -- the sand, the pyramid, history, the future. My thoughts run from the ethereal (I am simply visiting this planet. I am impermanent) to the mundane (I am hot. Mohammed Mustafa is waiting, where are the bathrooms). The desire to lie down next to the pyramid and simply meld into its side is great. But the pull to return to that which is familiar is greater. I walk back to Mohammed Mustafa and the cart. If I am nothing, I think, then I can create myself every day.
I clamber back into my seat and we take off across the desert. I feel empty and at peace as Mohammed Mustafa hails a friend of his, riding a camel. Groggy with nihilism, I look back at the pyramid. We have traveled some distance and I don’t see any other people. When I turn back around Mohmmed Mustafa has stopped to chat with his friend.
“You stand next to the camel and I take your picture,” says Mohammed Mustafa, interrupting my absence of thought.
I shift my gaze from the camel’s rider into the face of the camel. Quickly my consciousness rouses from no place and hurtles through a mental tunnel, ricocheting off walls, depositing it straight into my brain. I am alert. I am prepared. I see the camel and I know that the test has come. If I create myself every day, I can be anyone I want to be. I do not have to be a slave to my fears -- a slave to habit and convention. I can be the first person Keir has ever known to walk out of this desert having refused to ride a camel.
In a voice that sounds like a combination between Christiane Amanpour and Joan of Arc, I declare, “I am not going to ride a camel!”
Mohammed Mustafa shrugs indifferently, “What? You do not trust me. Only stand next to the camel for a picture.”
“I don’t want a picture with the camel.”
“I am good to you, yes? I take you to the pyramid. Now I take a picture for you with the camel. Then we go.”
The friend whaps the camel with is feet and the beast starts to kneel. I look back at the pyramid, remembering the peace I felt only minutes ago. Why am I denying this man the satisfaction of taking my picture with the camel? It’s clearly important to him. What would Christiane Amanpour do? Do I think that the two men are going to force me onto the camel? Aren’t I the master of my own fate? Clearly, everyone here will feel a lot better if I get my picture taken next to the camel. Then we can get going.
“OK,” I say, in a cool, officious voice. “I will stand next to the camel but I will not ride the camel. And I will not pay any more money.”
I scramble down the cart as the camel owner dismounts and approach the camel cautiously. A few paces away, I stop, turn and shout, “OK. You can take the picture now.”
“You need to be closer,” Mohammed Mustafa says.
“No. This is fine,”
“It is not a good picture. The camel will not bite you.”
“I’m not concerned about that. I just want to make it clear that I am never going to ride him.”
I take a few steps closer and pose.
Mohammed Mustafa says, “It is better for photo when you are next to him.” Mohammed Mustafa continues to direct and cajole until I find myself leaning into the kneeling camel, resting my palm against the wiry hair of his neck. Mohammed Mustafa takes the picture.
Done. I start to walk away when Mohammed Mustafa says, “My friend says for a better photo you must sit on the camel.”
My back stiffens, “I will not sit on the camel.”
Mohammed Mustafa speaks to his friend hurriedly then says to me, “Why you don’t sit on him? My friend says you do not like his camel. You do not trust him.”
I stop and look up at Mohammed Mustafa sitting in the cart with my camera. I am aware that I am being manipulated, but something deeper pushes through me. I want these strangers to like me. I want them to see that I am decent. That I am good. I can barely conjure the feeling of sublime emptiness I experienced at the foot of the pyramid. Now I am all need.
“All right,” I say, “ I will sit on the camel and you can take the picture. But I do not want to ride the camel. We must trust each other.”
“You have made my friend very happy,” Mohammed Mustafa tells me. And I feel better. I return to the camel and let the owner support my foot so that I can crawl up the camel’s side to the saddle. When I get to there, I scramble on all fours, my ass waving in the dusty Egyptian air, trying to orient myself as the men bark orders at me. Eventually, I slide legs on either side of the saddle and sit.
Mohammed Mustafa says, “Now the picture.” I pose and he snaps.
Then the mass of muscle and hair beneath me shudders and shifts. It rocks me from side to side. I cling to the horn of the saddle. As I am lifted into the air, I close my eyes and my heart pounds. Nothing is solid. I scream, “Down, down, down.”
My mind races – Holy Mary Mother of Living Fuck! I’m riding a fucking camel!
“Is OK,” I hear Mohammed Mustafa say. “You will not fall. I take a picture.”
“Down,” I scream. “No Camel! No Camel!”
“Open your eyes. I take the picture.”
“I’m too scared.”
“Only open your eyes. You will not fall.”
I grip the saddle horn tighter and pry open one eye. The horizon of the desert and the pyramids tilt from side to side like a slidey toy. I look down and find Mohmmmed Mustafa aiming the camera at me. Everything slows down. I feel infinitesimal. My swaying atop a camel in the middle of the vast desert, under the blue canopy of an impassive universe, has no meaning.
Except the meaning, I give it.
I lift my head and imagine the commentary. Less than an hour into my great journey to the pyramids, I find my legs tightening around the haunches of the camel I refused to ride. Straddling the beast, my gaze extends beyond the pyramids, imagining the stretch of arid earth that millions of years ago, was an ocean floor. It is easy to feel unimportant in a continuum of time that does not pause to acknowledge your existence. But I cannot allow these thoughts to take precedence over my CNN deadline. I am not only an adventurer and a fearless advocate for the downtrodden, but I am a professional. I am – in fact – whoever I say I am.
I list to the left, unable to center myself on the swaying camel. But when Mohammed Mustafa lifts the camera again, I am ready.