2007 Gonzo Travel Contest Winner – 1st Place
I thought to myself, “I knew this was a bad idea”.
I was officially stuck on top of a camel. Even after two weeks in this scandalous country, I had managed to fall into another obvious scam. A young boy had approached me at the base the Great Pyramid in Giza and had sweet-talked me into climbing onto his camel for a picture. It seemed harmless enough, just a quick snapshot and I would hop down, right?
As soon as I positioned my bottom in the cloth saddle, the boy had issued a command to the camel in a secret language that only the two speak, and the blasted thing stood up. My feet dangled on each of its hairy sides, a desperate 4 feet from the ground. There was no graceful way to dismount or jump off, and we all three knew that. So there I sat, with the boy standing on the ground a few feet away from me, holding my camera, and showing me his yellow teeth like a before picture in an electric toothbrush commercial.
Ten minutes later, and I was still on top of the infernal beast. Both of us were having a sweat marathon in the Egyptian sun but there was no doubt his hump would win out over my beer-gut for hydration reserves. The boy refused to let me down until I committed to an expensive ride or offered the equivalent in a bribe, known all over Egypt as “baksheesh”. I tried to muster some traveler excitement, here I was, at the base of the Great Pyramid on a camel!
Prisoner, on top of a camel, that is. The waiting game continued for another several minutes until finally the kid saw a look in my eyes that indicated an emanate explosion was about to occur. It was true, I was about to go into survival mode which included letting out my combat howl and snapping necks. I threw some coins at him after he let me down, and wandered off to a safe distance where I could curse his mother properly without being distracted by someone else wanting to sell me something.
And so, having spent one month in Egypt, I bounced in and out of trouble almost daily. My family had produced a hairball when I told them I wanted to go to Egypt alone, the seeds of fear gladly planted by the media had taken strong root. I decided to prove everyone wrong, to hell with the tour groups.
I’m not going to lie, Egypt was tough. There were hordes of low paid police officers walking around here fully equip with machine guns, black berets, and a standard facial expression that shows all the enlightenment of a cow. They all had thick black mustaches, I am convinced that Saddam Hussein is actually living in Cairo as a police officer now.
I learned early not to ask one of these guys for help. First, they spoke no English. Second, not only did they speak no English, but somehow my request for simple directions to the bus station had been misinterpreted as something hostile. Was I that bad at charades – I ask for a bus and instead start a coup?
I happened to have a package of Marlboro Red cigarettes in my day bag. I didn’t have to ask if anyone smoked, I could see lips quivering on the officers circled around me as I pulled the pack out. I passed them around and instantly peace was made for whatever infraction I had committed earlier. They were so happy at this point I probably could have gotten away with doing something harsh, like suggesting that women should receive a proper education…
Walking home from the museum that day I met a lower class Egyptian man while waiting to cross the street. He spoke some English so I chatted him up.
“Come” he said, “Lets go smoke shishah”.
I am an addicted, idiot backpacker. My head would pop off if I turned down any new opportunity to do something cultural with a local. And so we went to a little side street coffee shop nearby with plastic tables and folding chairs nestled outside right in the best street filth that Cairo could provide.
Smoking shishah is the national pastime in Egypt. The Muslims don’t drink much, so instead they sit around and smoke themselves to oblivion through huge, decorated pipes.
I am convinced that the man I was with was a walking, talking shishah pipe. He had smoked so much that his teeth were gone, his lips were black, and every now and then as he talked, a wisp of smoke would pop out of his nose like a dragon – even when he wasn’t smoking. He ordered up our pipes with a twinkle in his eye and insisted on paying.
“My treat,” he said proudly and with a hiss of smoke, “Welcome to Egypt”.
Rather than some pansy tourist flavor like vanilla or strawberry, he had provided us with something that tasted like a burning tire. I should have known that this guy would have graduated up from strawberry shishah, a long time ago. Probably when he was 8 years old.
“Its delicious,” I lied, trying to preserve our fragile new friendship, “What is it?”
I could feel my teeth start to loosen in my gums already. I can’t remember what his answer was, but he said that it was his favorite and that it was very strong tobacco. No joke.
Two days later and I was standing in the famous Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Every now and then a cough or a sneeze would result in the escape of more smoke from somewhere deep inside my chest. I had been transformed into a shishah breathing dragon like the rest of them.
Valley of the Kings was an awesome experience. I became friends with two Swedish guys and we were exploring the tomb of Seti I together on a gorgeous day. Posted all over the outside of the entrance were signs that read “no cameras”. The logic was that the paint in the hieroglyphics had not been exposed to light in thousands of years, and idiot tourists would never remember to turn the flash off on their cameras. The Swedish guys had a nice SLR camera and had no intentions of leaving it in the hands of a stranger, so we kept our cameras as we went down the stone steps inside.
Every inch of the walls were covered in colorful hieroglyphics, and told a fascinating story. Call me the world’s worst backpacker but there was no way I was bringing a camera in here without getting a picture. I made sure that my flash was off, and I started snapping sneaky shots of everything that I could. My buddy had the same idea with his SLR, and within minutes we had an angry Egyptian official standing in front of us and demanding our cameras. Busted!
I decided to take a gamble based on everything that I had learned in this country and said just one word.
“Baksheesh?” I said and it worked. Baksheesh is a type of formal tip/bribe and regardless of the social standing of the recipient, it does the trick in Egypt. His scowl was replaced with a smile as we traded a few dirty Egyptian bills for our precious cameras.
Then the guy caught me off guard. I had assumed that we would have to leave the tomb immediately and that we were officially on thin ice. Not quite.
“Anything else you want picture?” he asked me in broken English. He pointed around the tomb at various places of interest, and then it hit me. He wanted to make sure we got all the pictures that we wanted! Now that was service. I chuckled a little under my breath and another wisp of smoke escaped my nostril. Dammit.
I decided that if there was ever a time to press my luck in Egypt, it was now. I pointed to the official that had confiscated our cameras. He gave me a flabbergasted look but now I know that it was a look of flattery and not disgust. He smiled, threw his arms around my two Swedish friends, and posed for the ultimate picture which I proudly took. Who else can say they have a picture inside a tomb, surrounded by ancient Egyptian art, and standing next to the guy that gets paid to make sure no pictures are taken of that same art?
So, after one month of wandering around Egypt in and out of trouble, I learned how not to be afraid. Always keep cigarettes, a pocketful of baksheesh money, beware of camels and mysterious shishah and keep your cool. There is no such thing as a country too dangerous for anyone to travel.