Mohammed is walking so fast in front of me I have a hard time concentrating on anything but keeping track of his black polo shirt and his shiny black hair. “It’s the wrong time of the day to come,” I think to myself. The sun is relentless. There is so much sand in the air it’s hurting my eyes.
Then I see them. Three groups of souvenir sellers spot their prey from a distance and dart at me at the same time. Quicker than I can call Mohammed, furry toy camels and plastic pyramids block my view accompanied with waving arms, shouting and shoving. Though we’re almost seven miles outside of Cairo, this feels like real city chaos.
I’m trying to cope with the sudden onslaught by keeping my arms up protecting my face and repeating “la shukran, no thank you.” Though annoyed, I’m not sure which is worst, the hawkers’ insistence or their desperation. They have lost all their business as most countries have issued a travel warning on Egypt. It’s a revolution after all.
“Leave her alone, she’s not a tourist,” Mohammed has turned back and come to my rescue. I don’t speak Arabic well enough to know what exactly he said, but I imagine it’s something like that since it does the trick.
“You go ahead. I’ll wait here. The entrance is up over there,” Mohammed waves at the direction of the massive pile of stones right in front of me and lights a cigarette.
I continue approaching it. The great pyramid. The only surviving ancient wonder.
Up close the stones look bigger and more porous than in the pictures. I climb up towards the entrance holding onto them. They feel rough against my skin.
Midway towards the entrance I turn back and take a look at Cairo. It’s clearly visible though covered in smog. The megacity that’s usually edited out of the pictures by showing the view the other way, as if the pyramids were isolated in the middle of a barren desert.
I see Mohammed further away on his phone. He seems already just a tiny speck.
There’s a man checking tickets at the entrance. He looks about forty-five but is probably at least ten years younger, his face worn-out face from years of checking tourists’ tickets in the direct sun. But today I’m the only one.
He looks at me curiously and a bit amused. I feel like he actually sees me for a moment. As he’s tearing the stub from my ticket, he asks, “Would you like to go alone inside?” I think I detect a twinkle in his eye though he doesn’t look me in the eye.
“Yes!” I answer without hesitation, surprised by the question.
As I enter through the unassuming but cavernous entrance, I wonder whether there isn’t a protocol, whether someone should be accompanying me.
The descending corridor is long. There are some dim lights illuminating the narrow staircase. Although the sun is high up outside, it’s impossible to say what time of the day it is anymore. I hold onto the metal railing, its surface oddly cool.
A strange feeling dwells up that I cannot name. It’s as if what’s happening is so momentous I cannot really grasp it.
I reach the small room called the king’s chamber. I had never thought about there being rooms inside the pyramid. The lighting is dim and there’s nothing but a modest stone sarcophagus inside to the right. No murals are decorating the walls like in the tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. It’s cool and damp. The silence is so intense it kind of feels like a soft buzzing.
I touch the sarcophagus and close my eyes. I try and think about history, about all the people who have been in the chamber before me throughout thousands of years but I rather feel a slight energy, a pleasant buzzing vibration. It demands for once I don’t intellectualize.
I stay with my hand on the sarcophagus for a while, enjoying the moment, the silence. It’s impossible to say how long exactly.
My limbs feel light climbing back to the exit. The closer I get, the more intense the light and the heat get, pulling me back to the outside world. To the roadblocks we saw a group of men building on the road back to Cairo.
“How was it?” the ticket guy asks grinning as I come out protecting my eyes from the intense sun.
“Did you like it?”
“Yes, thank you,” I say squinting and haste to add, “Thank you for letting me go alone.”
He lights a cigarette, turning his head away a bit. I wait.
“You’re welcome,” he finally says, quickly glancing at me with another grin. Then he turns to his old Nokia.
I start climbing down having a weird feeling like he knows something I don’t. The further down I get, the more surprised I am he didn’t ask for money, a bit of baksheesh. Most people working at famous tourist spots in these parts of the world are jaded, looking for a bit extra money every chance they have. Why hadn’t he?
Mohammed is all business when I find him chatting to our driver, explaining where we will go next. He doesn’t ask about my experience.
Later that afternoon on our way back to Cairo, as I watch the monotonous fields alternating with the poor neighborhood one-story buildings and store signs, I keep thinking about the ticket guy at the pyramid. What did he see in me that prompted him to ask me whether I wanted to go alone inside the pyramid? Did he know I would like it or did he just want to be on his phone?
Mohammed doesn’t say anything about it, but I see the roadblock has been dismantled.