On Sunday my phone rang at 6:30 in the morning.
“Hnh? Snzx!” I said, looking at the screen to see that it was a number I didn’t know.
Waking up a little more I thought to myself, “who on earth would be calling me from an unfamiliar cell number on Sunday morning at 6:30?!”
And then I remembered my Mom’s friend Cindy was visiting on Sunday. Damn.
I called the number back and it was one of the tour guides from the cruise ship Cindy is on. The plan was for her to take a guided bus tour from Port Sa’id, where the boat landed, to Cairo where I would meet them for lunch.
That afternoon I took a taxi to the Mena House Hotel in Giza. I was wearing a skirt in a fashion popularin Egypt just now, especially with the muhajjibabes: very long, tight in the hips but wide at the base so you can actually walk. It makes you look a little like a mermaid. And I’m pretty sure it’s part of the reason my taxi driver didn’t realize how bad my Arabic actually is until we were about ten minutes into the trip. He was trying to ask me something (it later transpired he wanted to know if it was okay to take the ring road) and when I wasn’t able to answer he asked about three more times before looking very surprised and asking where I’m from.
I’d never been to the Mena House before but I read about it in a convoluted mystery novel by Maxim Chattam, The Cairo Diary. In the portion of the story set in 1928, it’s a place where a very rich and beautiful expatriate woman meets her lover and later her future husband for romantic trysts. It sits literally in the shadow of the pyramids on Giza plain, one of the most evocative positions in all Egypt. There is a gorgeous ad for it in the Practical Guide to Cairo, which also notes in the main text that the Mena House is one of the favorite weekend escape hotels of Cairenes themselves. Because of all this I’d mentally slotted the Mena House in with the other colonialist, Orientalist fantasies of Egypt, with Flaubert’s glib assertion that one rediscovers more than they discover in Egypt (to misquote the mustachioed one) sitting like a caption under my mental snapshot of the place.
This is basically right: the Mena House is a gorgeous, clean and well-maintained oasis of calm and aesthetic pleasure. The second I walked into the grounds I relaxed instantly. This is a stunning feat since riding on the ring road always makes me feel like I’m going to die. Though this is the only time I’ve not been afraid of actually crashing with another car – there was a remarkably small amount of traffic as we drove out. This time the taxi was making a horrible disharmonic two-tone noise that got louder at high speeds and the driver had to keep his hand on the shifter to hold the thing in gear.
While waiting for Cindy I sat in the lobby bar, all Mamluk wood paneling with a huge plate-glass window into the garden that just manages to fit the whole of the Great Pyramid into the view. Looking across the marble and subdued gold-painted lobby with the quiet voices of Italian, German and American tourists all around me, I felt like I’d stepped into the Gilded Age. In other words, my suspicions were right: the Mena House is a beautifully constructed fantasy of how any vacationer would like Egypt to be, rather than how it is. On the other hand, plenty of people go to Disney World for precisely the same reasons: on vacation, everybody wants a guaranteed good time.
Hooking up with a cruise tour group was a very interesting experience. I saw the buses arrive and herds of people start walking towards the back of the hotel. It became obvious that the groups weren’t going to come through the lobby itself at all – and a good thing too because 200 hungry people would seriously upset the atmosphere. After consulting the desk I took a winding route through the hotel to the conference section where there are several large ballrooms. And standing outside anxiously awaiting my arrival was my dear old friend Cindy.
It is always a good experience to be visited in your new home by people you know from before; somehow it makes your new life seem more real! Somebody else is there seeing it with you; it’s not just words on a postcard any more.
Although in reality I didn’t show Cindy anything of my own life; we were swept into the crush of the tour group. This was a very odd experience for me: these people were going to spend a total of twelve hours in Egypt. They were bused down in the morning and they’d be bused back in the evening. Everywhere they went they’d be kept in a herd and they would only see things in a preplanned itinerary that had absolutely no room for spontanaeity.
It was good to see my friend, we had a great time chatting about home and taking photos of the pyramids behind us. She’d kindly brought me something from the States (peanut butter…I get homesick for it sometimes) and gave me updates on all the neighborhood gossip back in Florida.
At the same time it was very odd to see how differently these bus tourists reacted to, and were reacted to by, Egyptian people than I am in my daily life here. None of them spoke any Arabic so my simple request at lunch to the waiter for tea (which they didn’t have) was met with amazement both by the people at the table and the waiter himself who made a point of asking about ten extra unnecessary questions to see how long he could prolong the conversation.
I hitched a ride on the tour bus back to the center of town rather than taking a taxi back again, which was great for the extra time I got to spend with Cindy. But first! First we had to stop at the ‘Real Papyrus Institute Inc.’ and the ‘Wondrous Khalili Bizarre.’ These are not their real names but close enough, and there are any number of stores like this in Giza anyway.
When I’m shopping for things here, I make a point of insisting on asking the price in Egyptian pounds when they try to tell me in dollars and I do my best to conduct the whole transaction in Arabic. It was strange to be with people who were content to pay in dollars and euros, knowing that they were getting a very inflated price because of this but also seeing how relieved they were that they didn’t have to carry any foreign money or keep track of conversion rates in their head.
The interactions with Egyptian people were also very different: gone were the smiling and joking, gone was the genuine friendliness and pride that somebody would take enough interest in their country to come, and to try to learn the language. There was a lot of obsequious flattery and very aggressive salesmanship. To them, we were a herd of roly-poly, rheumy and slightly achy middle-aged people in a little bubble of ignorance, buying faux-Pharonic paintings on papyrus done in tempara paint and too ignorant to tell the difference between that and something of quality. Here was the counterpoint to the jadedness that I occasionally express about walking down the street in Egypt feeling like I’m getting hassled all the time. These people were jaded about their interactions with tourists who buy plastic souvineers imported from China instead of something made here in Egypt, who are bad tippers, bad dressers, want to try on everything in the store without buying anything and talk FAR TOO LOUDLY.
Eventually everybody piled back on the bus and we started for the center of town so they could visit the Egyptian Museum. The tour guide referred to her charges as “Pharaos”. Everyone was amazed by the fertility of the Nile river valley and the beauty and size of the produce on the carts. Clearly the realities of Egypt weren’t meeting up with their expectations, even seen through the curtained frame of a tour bus window.
On our way out of Giza the bus pulled alongside two young men riding a camel. They were dressed as most Egyptian young men are, in jeans and t-shirts, I think one had a stylish jacket on. They were both texting on their mobiles as we pulled past them, gawking. Traffic being what it is in Egypt, we passed them several more times on the road before pulling ahead and soon we were all smushed against the bus windows trying to take pictures. When the guys noticed our interest they nudged each other and started laughing at us, waving. The camel, unlike any I’d seen before, had designs of stars, moons, and swirls shaved into the fur on its face, head and neck. I wasn’t able to get a photo but the whole oddness of the tour bus experience was worth it just to see that.