Mark and Sebastian are so excited on the plane to Doha they just will not sleep, this is the long haul part of the flight, we boarded the red eye from Sydney around 10.30 pm and are now almost at the end of the first leg, a horror 15 and a half hours, then three and a half hour lay over in Doha to connect to Cairo. A further three hours to Cairo where our tour guide Ahmed will meet us.
Mark, Sebastian, you must sleep or you’ll be absolutely exhausted by the time we get to Egypt darlings, please.
I am getting fed up and Jeff steps in firmly, whips off their ear phones and speaks to them in a low voice threatening all sorts of hell if they don’t sleep.
But their excitement is palpable and contagious, I feel that familiar sense of euphoria of being on a plane, scanning the clouds across the horizon, checking the menus, trying to extract as much leg room in economy as you can. Fortunately the middle eastern airline has new planes with pretty good leg room, but I make a point of getting up periodically to walk around, visions of thrombosis and swelling ankles thanks to the in flight safety video exhorting you to move regularly and drink lots of water and avoid alcohol.
But Jeff and I can’t resist ordering a champagne shortly after take off, as we toast each other, we note we made it this far, no major dramas on the way.
The plane commences its descent over Cairo. This is it. A country I have never been to. The boys are red eyed and I believe have not slept at all. Somehow we will deal with it.
I love to watch the flight path of the plane and study the countries neighbouring Egypt, there are two versions that flash up, one in Arabic the other English. We have just passed over La Mer Rouge – The Red Sea. We will be going snorkelling there on the grand tour of Egypt we have meticulously planned.
Fly over Hurghada, Luxor, and bank north to Cairo, there is the faint line of the Nile on the map. All I can focus on right now is the astonishing spectacle below me.
The desert fans out forever, light ochre in the morning sunlight, you can see the heat is harsh, the light blinding. I see a patchwork of lines delineating areas, and then the plane starts to bank right as we move in over the city.
There are mountains of apartments, towering even from this distance.
Look Mum is that the pyramids? Sebastian calls out, eyes wide.
I look down to see three faint triangular shapes right near the city.
Yes honey I think so, we are staying in a hotel there, called Giza, not far from them.
I can see large rectangular shapes like hotels, with the requisite swimming pools looking incongruous in this barren landscape without any green at all.
It reminds me of the top end of Australia where the heat reaches 50 degrees plus and the red dirt scorches, mining country.
We approach the descent into the runway, the Nile has swung into view, we are all transfixed by the sheer size of this city, it seems to go forever in the density of the buildings.
The wheels hit the tarmac and someone gives a slight scream to the amusement of everyone else, the babies are crying with the change in air pressure on the way down.
I had read somewhere that Egypt can change your life, either you really love it, or can’t wait to get out of the place. Some people go back every holiday, this crosses my mind for some reason, as we disembark to waiting buses and juggling luggage head to the long lines waiting to get visas and pass through customs.
A young man, early thirties, wearing a red and white scarf loosely knotted around his neck, shorts and t shirt, stops us at the start of the visa line.
Jeff, Louise? And you must be Sebastian and Mark, not sure which is which, he laughs, revealing a perfect set of white teeth in golden tanned skin.
Through my tiredness and adrenalin I note he is one of the gorgeous young Egyptian men that are legendary. This is going to be a good tour.
My name is Ahmed Yousseff and I am your tour guide.
We shake hands, and the boys smile approvingly at Ahmed, young, cool.
Let me help get your visas, you have the US dollars for them?
Jeff and Ahmed sort out business as I shepherd the boys to the side. It is then I realise it looks like we are the only Western tourists in the entire airport.
I see multiple lines of hundreds of men in varying states of dress, the long jalabiya I have heard about, or younger groups of men in fashionable bleached jeans and casual dress. The women are all covered in head scarves, or burqas. Many are watching us with undisguised interest, a number are smiling. We seem to have caused quite a commotion, I go to check this with Ahmed, but he deftly hands us the visas and propels us expertly into the shortest queue.
There must be at least 600 people lined up for only about three working counters.
Are they short of staff or something Ahmed? I ask innocently
He laughs. No, welcome to Egypt where everything takes a long time. Unlike in ancient times, Egyptians are not now noted for their efficiency.
He speaks beautiful English with a slight Arabic accent and I notice a few younger Egyptian girls sneaking glances at his handsome profile.
The heat is oppressive, it appears there is no air conditioning in here, it seems an old airport badly in need of an upgrade. There is much jostling and pushing as people try to jump queue or push in, Ahmed ensures we keep bunched forward, and somehow manages to get us through in a reasonable time. Later I realise this is his skill, he manages to smooth out all the rough parts of travel, all the bureaucracy of Egypt in a deft, experienced good natured way.
We finally get past Customs, there are policemen in white uniforms everywhere, a daunting sight seeing so much police prescence. We eventually grab our suitcases, I see Ahmed paying someone to put them on the trolley and help wheel them to the exit.
We approach the large exit doors and I see a waiting heaving loud mass of people just outside the terminal.
Boys put your hats on now please.
I had purchased a set of Australian Akubra hats, wide brimmed, brown and let the air through especially for the heat I knew was about to hit us.
The boys look at me worriedly as they see the crowds, Ahmed waits as we put on our hats, then guides us through the throng.
The noise and attention is immediate.
I hear someone call out as we push through staring and some friendly smiles, I turn and see someone waving, and I wave back, but immediately wonder if I have done the wrong thing as we have to respect local customs, whatever the hell exactly they may be I was yet to discover.
We all have long sleeved shirts on, and I wear long pants, but it is clearly the fair skin and the blondeness of myself and the boys that has everyone staring.
Ahmed propels us into awaiting mini van, the air conditioning turned up full blast.
How long to get to Giza? I ask Ahmed.
About an hour.
I see him put a pack of cigarettes down on the dashboard, and I feel a pang as I had quit about three months earlier. However I notice that everywhere, people are smoking. Welcome to the third world, like Australia must have been in the 1950’s …
Mum it’s so hot! Mark complains and puts on his sun glasses to deal with the glare of white heat.
The boys are already sweating and I have visions of sunstroke and dehydration.
Ahmed we need to get some water ok?
Sure of course, Jeff if you can come with me me there is a store here.
The driver of the minivan turns to us and gives a big smile
Welcome to Egypt.
Shokran, I reply and silently urge boys to respond
Shokran they say in unison. The driver nods.
Very good, you speak Arabic.
What is it about the young men here I muse, they all so far seem young and gorgeous.
And poor I remind myself as I see Jeff scurrying back covered in sweat, with Ahmed, clutching three litre bottles of water.
We had changed Australian dollars at the airport, as I found this was best place to get some initial cash as there is meant to be a fixed exchange rate.
He squeezes into the relative coolness of the 8 seater van, Ahmed sits up front next to the driver and exchanges rapid Arabic to him. As we pull off I ask Jeff
How much was the water? as the boys grab the bottles and down almost half in one go.
How much? Jeff is struggling with the heat, thinks for a moment
I think it was about 120 dollars, I mean pounds
120 pounds! I exclaim probably a bit loudly as both the driver and Ahmed quickly glance around.
You got ripped off.
What? He asks indignantly.
The boys laugh and I see Ahmed smile, but I was well aware of the overcharging of Westerners that occurs in Egypt, the blog sites were full of it.
That’s over 40 pounds for a litre of water. Ahmed how much should it have been?
Ahmed I can see is trying to keep a straight face
It is more expensive at the airport, he says diplomatically.
The driver is now free of the traffic that was piled up at the airport and we have hit the main highway to Giza.
There seems to be about 20 lanes filled with old banged up cars, I don’t see any traffic lights anywhere.
Ahmed, where are the traffic lights and stop signs? I ask innocently
He laughs and says welcome to Cairo, where there are no rules.
Every man for himself, Jeff notes wryly.
The light is blinding, I try to shield myself and the boys’ faces
Boys, here put on some sunscreen.
We all carry backpacks, filled with tubes of it.
Mum we’re inside the in car, chill out says Mark trying the cool dude act to no doubt impress Ahmed.
I don’t care it must already be 40 degrees and its midday!
Mum! Sebastian shouts, and points out the right side of the window, we all turn, and we see rising majestically just on the outskirt of the city the first pyramid of Giza
Oh my God! I can’t help blaspheming bad Catholic girl I am.
Look at that! Even Jeff is impressed.
Ahmed notes ‘the three pyramids of Giza’, we’ll be seeing them up close tomorrow.
But it’s so close to the city that’s incredible I note
Yes originally of course the pyramids were built miles away from Cairo, but over time Cairo has expanded and expanded to be very close to them, it’s a big problem.
We all gaze in delight at these wonders of the world, one smaller pyramid nestled between two larger ones, looming golden in the harsh sun, a heat haze around them in the distance, framed against a clear cloudless corn-flower blue canvas, seen only for a couple of minutes past the towering apartment buildings and commercial buildings, palm trees interspersed with dirt areas on the side of the road where there are markets, donkeys, beggars all going by in a in an air-conditioned blur.
I feel an excitement in me I haven’t experienced in a long time, and I think, yes this place may well change my life.
I’m not sure how, but I get a flash of a sense of epiphany, maybe a major change about to occur for all of us….