to see the pyramids
A chance encounter with a Bedouin
gives Kavan Ratnatunga a chance to savour local life and customs
Part of the thrill of travel is the unexpected.
To observe the rare Transit of Venus across the face of the Sun
on June 8, I decided to travel to Egypt. Having a tight schedule
with so many places to see in Egypt and not wanting to bother organizing
all of the details, I booked a tour with a travel agent in Colombo.
looking back, I probably should have only booked the hotels and
travel and toured the archaeological sites without any Egyptian
tour guide. A guide is useful to point out what one might otherwise
miss seeing in an archaeological site, but for that one can always
read a travel book or watch some other guide even if you don't understand
sites like Abu Simbel didn't let the guides in. These sites particularly
when not crowded are just fantastic to savour the peaceful environment
of the majestic buildings.We were lucky that way in Abu Simbel,
one of the best places to visit in Egypt. Egyptian guides to earn
their bakshi (tip) feel obliged to give you a full description of
the place, not forgetting to include an often repeated introduction
to the history of Egypt. Guides also felt it was important to take
one to visit various workshops making Egyptian artefacts or papyrus
wall hangings. Always a free demonstration: how genuine alabaster
vases are carved or the ancient art of making Papyrus paper rediscovered
not too long ago. One was a school where 6 to 8-year-olds were being
"taught" the art of weaving carpets, which however, they
will not be able to do in adulthood with larger hands.
I pointed out that importation of products made with child labour
was banned they had a long explanation. They had heard the complaint
before and had their story-line ready. Each place has its in-house
tourist trap selling items at least two to three times the market
paper currency circulates in Egypt. The US$ was worth 6.20 Egyptian
pounds written abbreviated as ŁE and equal to 100 piasters.
There are five piaster notes worth less than a US penny.
smallest note to circulate is 25 piasters. The notes particularly
of lower denomination were dirty since they probably were allowed
to circulate for lot longer than they should. Coins were last minted
in 1994 and don't circulate. You can buy a packaged set of Egyptian
coins in a tourist shop for 25 times the face value. Taxis in Egypt
are not that expensive. They however, feel free to charge tourists
three to four times the meter price. The cheapest mode of transportation
is the public and private buses if you can work out which bus to
are not crowded and cost ŁE 0.5 a ride independent of the
length, one stop or across Cairo. However be warned; communication
is not always easy. One must always carry one’s destinations
written large in Arabic and English to confirm the route when you
get in the bus.
by bus after a late trip to the Net-cafe, one day, the bus took
off to the entrance to the freeway within walking distance from
my hotel. It didn't really stop completely when the driver opened
the door to let me out. I was lucky to walk away with only a bruised
elbow. One needs many litres of bottled water a day for drinking
and even washing one's mouth. Bottled water is a good source of
income for the hotels which sell it for five times the market price.
Despite all precautions, most tourists I was told get diarrhoea
within a few days of coming to Egypt. For Japanese tourists it is
a few hours. From a group of over 30 American tourists from Louisiana
whom I met on the Nile cruise only four were OK, a few days into
the trip, although they had followed all of the precautions and
eaten only in five-star restaurants. I was glad to be more adapted
for third world travel.
last day was free, and was allocated for shopping. The recommendation
was that no tourist should go away without buying from the Khan
al-khalili bazaar in Cairo. I had already purchased the few items
intended to take back and was not too motivated to visit another
tourist market place however famous. I decided instead to visit
Saqqarah about 20 km south of Giza.
Pyramid Cataract hotel I was staying in is on the road from Giza
to Saqqarah.As an optional tour the travel agent wanted $30 per
person (a 2 person minimum) with guide for the trip.
Hotel wanted $30 for a taxi for the round trip with an hour’s
visit. So I walked out of the hotel and caught the first bus that
came past. The driver nodded when I asked for Saqqarah. However
I soon found out that was the Saqqarah village and not the "tourist
site" with the Step Pyramid.
of the highlights I wanted to see at Saqqarah were the tombs of
the Apis bulls. A guide showed me around the Pyramid of Titi and
the other two tombs. Just outside, one of the security guards was
on a camel and I went over to take its photograph with the Step
pyramid in the background. A Bedouin who spoke English approached
me and offered to take me around the site on the camel. He asked
for ŁE 80 which was more Egyptian money than I had then with
me, so I showed him that I had only ŁE 65 and offered ŁE
agreed. A camel costs ŁE 4000 (US$650) so it seemed to
me a fair price. I took a few photographs next to the decorated
camel he called Sam and climbed on. Riding the camel was smooth
at the slow pace with the Beduin walking in front. We then stopped
for a photo stop. The Bedouin insisted that I switch head gear with
him for the photos.
Bedouin had worked out a series of poses and I followed his direction.
Finally he asked me to stand on the camel. He may have been joking,
but I was not going to refuse the challenge. It was clearly impossible
without some support so I got his stick and stood up with a lot
of faith that the camel would not move while the owner took his
time over the photography. I am glad the narrow and high platform
was more stable than the bus I had experienced the previous night.
took me close to the monuments next to the Step pyramid and gave
me time to explore the interesting ruins. Then he invited me to
visit him the next time I came to Egypt. I asked the Bedouin if
could take me to his place straightaway.
pointed out his place in the distant horizon probably about a mile
away and agreed. We left on a long ride across an oasis and through
the adjoining Saqqarah village.
we got to his home, which was not a tent but looked like a lower
middle class home. The camel was tethered to the grill in front
of the house and we walked in leaving our sandals at the door. He
offered me a strong cup of tea, which I suspect could not have dissolved
more sugar in it.
lived on the ground floor of the building with his wife and invited
me to see the two upper floors he was building for his two grown
sons. The rooms had been built but the top floor still had no roof.
In order not to waste space it was being used for his livestock.
There were baby chicks in one room and pigeons in another. The top
floor had ducks and even a large turkey, which took me by surprise.
When that floor gets a roof I was told the livestock would go on
two sons dropped in and said hello. One had heard about Sri Lanka
as the land of Adam's Peak and the footprint. I had known of the
association but never expected to hear it from a Bedouin in remote
Egypt. It is probably identified in modern textbooks which translate
the stories in the Koran.
tried to get him talking on politics, but all I gathered was that
he identified all four leaders Osama, Saddam, Bush and Blair as
power hungry and not working in the interest of humanity. The Bedouins
feel that Saddam let down the people of Iraq by not surrendering
when he could have gone in to exile. They felt God didn't consider
him worthy of a martyr’s death.
meal took over two hours to arrive, steaming hot in one large dish
with four spoons. The wife's brother and son joined us for the meal
in traditional Beduin style. It was rice and chicken with something
probably egg-based under the rice. It was by far the best chicken
buriyani I have had for a long time.The meal over, it was time to
go. I gave the Bedouin all the ŁE I had with me keeping just
enough to catch a bus back to the hotel. He sent his son with me
in the first bus to ensure I got on the correct bus that got me
to the main Saqqarah-Giza road.
remembered that my son Rhajiv after watching the travel channel
had recommended that I meet up with a Beduin and have lunch at his
home. I never expected to do it. I would not have got the opportunity
if I didn't strike out on my own, independent of the Egyptian travel
industry. I can now look back with fond memories of meeting a Bedouin,
and having a meal with him off the beaten tracks of a camel ride
to the Pyramids.