Weekend with the Pharaohs – a short story for Level 2 English
This is a True Story
Thank god it’s Saturday. What a hard first month it had been. Working eight hour days in the blistering heat, the sweat pouring from my forehead and running into my eyes making it difficult to see and then dripping into the machinery, definitely not good with all the electricity running through it. That however was not the end of my woes, my overalls carefully tucked into my boots to stop the sand fleas from attacking my ankles and sucking the blood from the exposed flesh. Then there is the sand, I gave up wearing contacts after the first day, sand gets between the contact and the eye, not a good idea to wander around Cairo without being able to see. Welcome to Egypt, land of the Pharaohs.
Today is going to be different. Today is the start of the weekend and there’s no work until Monday. There’s a knock at my hotel door. That’ll be Ammina the floor maid with my laundry I thought, she always delivers it personally in the hope of a tip (baksheesh). I struggled in my first week before I learned how much a very small amount of money went to making the wheels run more smoothly, for example an Egyptian pound left on my pillow each day gave me a spotless room, clean bedding everyday and a bathroom full of soap and towels. “Morning Ammina how are you today”. “Good morning sir, I have your laundry, shall I take your laundry bag”, “Yes of course you can, remind them not to add any starch to my wash, OK,” I said, passing her the bag that I’d placed earlier behind the door. “Yes sir no starch, the front desk asked me to tell you that your driver is waiting in the lobby”, “Thanks Ammina, see you tomorrow”.
Better get ready I thought, my guide is here already. I’d arranged the day before for a personal guide on the advice of the girl on reception, after she described the usual tourist excursions as “whirlwind trips in a crowded bus to the sights but with the bus drivers relatives waiting at each stop to ply you with the usual souvenirs and touristy rubbish”.
Lift or stairs I thought as I left my room, taking the lift would cost me a tip but do I want to walk down all those stairs? The lift it is then, as I walk down the corridor I can see that the lift door is already open and the lift attendant seems to be waiting for me, I thought “I’m sure there’s some kind of network of spies keeping an eye on me”. “Morning” I say to the lift attendant as I enter. “Lobby sir? he says” I nod in the affirmative and he tends to the operation of the lift. It’s one of those old ones where you have to pull the outer door closed then the inner door and then pull the lifts lever to start the lift moving, forward for up back for down. As we travel down the lights blink on and off and a bell sounds as we go past each floor, finally we come to a halt as the attendant pushes the lever forward.
“The lobby sir”, we shake hands the small domination note passes swiftly from my hand to his, it’s a daily occurrence but I never seem to have to wait too long for the lift ever since we started this routine.
As I step from the lift I see this figure dominating the lobby with his massive proportions. Wow! I thought, that must be my guide, as I looked him over I immediately thought of Sidney Greenstreet, straight out of his role in the film Casablanca. He stood at least six feet tall; corpulent, wearing a white suit, only slightly dusty from the desert sands; he wore a white fedora with a black band and carried a long straight walking stick and the final touch, he was smoking an enormous cigar. I caught his eye and he turned to face me, “Mr Hunt” he says, “that’s me” I replied. “My names Mahmood Sajit but please call me Mahmood” he said. “My names Ian” I said, I knew he wouldn’t be able to pronounce it correctly no else had so far and sure enough he pronounced my name as “Einz”, I knew better than to try and correct his pronunciation, so I just nodded. “My car and driver await us outside” he said and beckoned towards and then starts moving himself towards the main entrance. I follow him and he says “Of course you know you are staying in the very famous ‘Shepherds Hotel’ where your ‘Winston Churchill’ also once stayed while in conference with President Roosevelt and Stalin”. I gave him a nod to indicate that I was impressed by his knowledge of my Hotel; I’d known this as soon as I had arrived as there is a plaque in the lobby above the check in desk celebrating this meeting of world leaders.
As we exit the Hotel entrance the heat hits me, it’s only just turned 9.00am but already it’s too hot. The cars parked right outside, an old white Mercedes, a step up I thought from the usual black and white Russian built Ladas that make up most of the cars on the roads in Cairo. His driver leaps out and opens the rear passenger door for us. I step in and slide all the way across the bench seat making room for Mahmood; it’s a tight squeeze as he settles in beside me. The driver gets back in and starts the old Mercedes up, it clatters into life and soon settles down to a light drone as we pull into the slow moving traffic, joining the 24 hour traffic jam on the streets of Cairo. “First I must show you the Great Pyramid and if you would like to go inside I’m sure this can be arranged” he says. I immediately thought “that’s probably going to cost me extra”. The car squeezes its way through the traffic; the horn as usual appears to be directly connected to the brake pedal, sounding off every time we stop. I’m as usual faced with the dilemma, open the window to get some air but of course this also lets the dust in or just put up with the heat. I crack the window open just enough I hoped to let air in but not the dust.
We progress quickly through the traffic and we are soon on the outskirts of Cairo and there is the Great Pyramid, of course I’d seen it before, hundreds of times in films and on television but this was for real. From a distance it’s a perfect triangle shape but as you get close you can see the enormous building blocks from which it has been made, forming what seemed to be giant steps towards the sky. The topmost section still smooth with it’s covering of mortar, which in the distant past used to cover the entire Pyramid. Mahmood or as I had already mentally begun thinking of him as Sydney (that is Sydney Greenstreet) began to describe the History of the Pyramids, its construction and the robbing of its treasures firstly, by the Tomb raiders followed by the French and then the British.
As we walked across the burning sand away from the side of the Pyramid facing Cairo and the hundreds of white plastic chairs set up for that evenings light show the Son et Lumière we came to another entrance. A hole seemingly cut into the side of the Pyramid with a solitary guard leaning against the opening. As we approach the guard seemed to recognise my guide, they shake hands there is the usual passing of a small denomination note. Mahmood introduces the guard and we shake hands (everyone shakes hands in Egypt, again something I learned very quickly in the first few days). Mahmood says “ My friend will let you go inside the Pyramid, but be aware it is a difficult passage to the burial chamber, you must go up many wooden steps, in some places the steps are missing and for this a rope has been strung also the wooden guardrail is in disrepair, do you wish to go inside?” How could I say no I thought after such a build up, to say no would be to loose face, so of course but with some trepidation I go inside.
I’m inside The Great Pyramid, it’s dark even though there is a string of work lights going upwards and seemingly without end, that’s another surprise the steps go up, for some reason I thought the burial chamber was at the bottom of the Pyramid. The steps are wooden and poorly made, obviously added much more recently because of course the Pyramids are thousands of years old so the steps could not have survived all that time. Suddenly the way ahead appears much darker, it’s eerily quiet and the way up is blocked by a vertical wall of stone, then I notice the rope hanging in one corner, if I want to carry on I must climb the rope. Taking hold of the rope in both hands I begin to scrabble up the side of the stone block. In what seems to take forever and with the last of my strength I reach the top of the stone block. I stop for a breather before moving on and upwards. “Jesus” I shout out as I suddenly come across a group of what seem to be three locals going back down the way I had just come, they are talking rapidly amongst themselves and do not seem to notice me. Recovering from my fright I carried on and when I had begun to think that the climb would never end, I was there, at the end of the climb and in the burial chamber, the resting place of a great Pharaoh, a living God to his people. What a disappointment I thought it was just a small square dark chamber, without decoration or adornment. I stayed as long as I could until the dark and silence became too oppressing, besides which, it was becoming creepy being alone in the dark at the top of a Pyramid.
The climb down seemed to be much easier. The light seemed to be brighter and the way down therefore easier to see. A trick of the light or had I become acclimatised to the darkness. I was at the bottom and in all that time I’d not passed anyone else coming up the other way. The light was blinding as I stepped out once again into the heat of the desert. Mahmood appeared to be sitting in a deckchair with a cool drink in one hand and what appeared to be an even bigger cigar than what I’d first seen him smoking before in his other hand. I looked at my watch I’d been inside little more than an hour, incredible it had seemed like hours and hours. “An amazing experience was it not, did you feel the presence of the Pharaoh himself” said Mahmood. “It was certainly an experience” I said, but not one I’d like to repeat I thought to myself.
Mahmood leads the way again as we walk back towards the car. We pass the endless numbers of traders of souvenirs and those offering camel rides across the desert. A local holding the reins of a camel shouts out “Ten pounds to ride the camel”. Normally not something I’d be interested in but I thought ‘why not’ a once in a lifetime experience. I turn to Mahmood, “do we have time”? I said, “Yes, I will speak to the camel owner for you”, after a rapid and somewhat animated negotiation with a gesture or two from Mahmood’s cane a single Egyptian pound exchanges hands.
Arif the camel’s owner who seems to have no English which surprises me as most locals appear usually to be multi-lingual especially if they think they can sell you something. Anyway I’m introduced to the camel who seems to have zero interest in me as it lies in the desert sand yawning, I’m sure its seen it all before.
Arif then presses a white headdress and what appears to be a black headband into my hands and demonstrates through hand gestures that I should put it on. Suitably attired as a local, Arif shows me how to get onto the camels back and hands me a stick, presumably for hitting the camel it misbehaves. A camel is like sitting on a bag full of rocks. Then it stands up, first by the back legs nearly throwing me off forwards and then by the front legs nearly throwing me off again but this time backwards. Arif keeps a firm grip on the reins as we begin the circumnavigation of the Pyramids. It’s an amazing feeling sitting so high up, gently rocking backwards and forwards as we progress around the first of the Pyramids. I take a look back and Mahmood seems to have already found his deck chair and a glass of something cool again. As we travel along I can’t help but think of Lawrence of Arabia and visualising myself in the great mans shoes riding across the desert as the camel carefully takes each step. The sun has gone behind the Pyramid, instantly it’s much cooler, we are halfway through our journey already. But the respite from the heat is short lived as we turn the next corner and the sun is facing me in all its fury, its gone noon and it’s the hottest part of the day “time to find some shade and a cool drink I thought to myself”. We are soon back from where we had started from.
Mahmood’s waiting for me and suggests that I get a photograph taken of me on the Camel. After more negotiation another Egyptian pound changes hand and I pass my camera over to Arif’s nephew who appears to understand cameras. Arif’s nephew thoroughly enjoys working the camera and several photographs are taken. Then with handshakes all round we say our goodbyes and as we leave I pass a ten pound note to Arif as a thank you, after all it had been a well spent hour, a memory that will last a lifetime.
Back in the car which now feels like the inside of an oven, driving back to my Hotel and hopefully a cool drink? Mahmood suggest that we stop off and meet his nephew “an aspiring artist of great skill”. Here it comes I thought the hard sell, printed images of Pharaoh’s on papyrus, what appears to be recycled coke cans melted and cast into the shapes of the Gods and almost certainly postcards of the Pyramids. But I was wrong, there were pictures of the Pharaoh’s on papyrus but these were hand painted and inset with gold leaf. There were hand engraved brass plates and sculptures of the Pharaoh’s heads all done in exquisite detail, “how much”? I enquired. Mahmood immediately steps in and suggests to his nephew that the sum of one hundred and fifty pounds would be sufficient for the four paintings along with the two brass plates I had expressed an interest in. I didn’t argue as I would have happily paid much more.
Back at the Hotel, Mahmood joins me for a drink in the courtyard; I have my usual, a recent discovery from the very first week in Egypt. The drink served in a very British dimpled styled pint glass filled with ice, fresh fruit and lemonade complete with a very generous measure of Pimms. With a clink of glasses I thanked Mahmood for an excellent day particularly the climb inside the Great Pyramid. “I’m surprised” I said, “there was only the one small group of locals inside the Pyramid that I’d met on the climb up, I thought it would be full of tourists”. “It cannot be true” said Mahmood “you were in the Pyramid on your own, no one else came out of the Pyramid while you were in there” said Mahmood. “But there were three of them, I almost walked into them, too be honest they appeared out of nowhere frightening the life out of me” I said. “No it is forbidden for visitors to go inside the Pyramid, I thought you knew, which is why I had to speak to the guard, could it be that you truly saw the ghosts of the Tomb Raiders” he said. “Ghosts” I exclaimed. “They say that the ghosts are of the three Tomb Raiders who were sealed inside the Pyramid after setting off one of the many traps inside the Pyramid and now doomed to haunt the corridors of the Pyramid, still trying to find their way out” he said. I didn’t know what to say, could they have been the ghosts of the Tomb Raiders, or were they more likely something Mahmood dreamed up to add some extra spice to his repertoire of stories to frighten the tourists.
Mahmood obviously happy with my reaction to his Ghost theory said, “I will take my leave now and for tomorrow I thought we’d visit ‘The City of the Dead’, maybe we will see some more ghosts” Mahmood smiled, turned and lumbered away using his stick to clear a path through the tables and back into the Hotel. As I watched him leave, more Ghosts, I thought, I hope not, taking a long drink emptying the glass.