Going to see the pyramids
A chance encounter with a Bedouin gives Kavan Ratnatunga a chance to savour local life and customs
Part of the thrill of travel is the unexpected. To observe the rare Transit of Venus across the face of the Sun on June 8, I decided to travel to Egypt. Having a tight schedule with so many places to see in Egypt and not wanting to bother organizing all of the details, I booked a tour with a travel agent in Colombo.

Now looking back, I probably should have only booked the hotels and travel and toured the archaeological sites without any Egyptian tour guide. A guide is useful to point out what one might otherwise miss seeing in an archaeological site, but for that one can always read a travel book or watch some other guide even if you don't understand the language.

Some sites like Abu Simbel didn't let the guides in. These sites particularly when not crowded are just fantastic to savour the peaceful environment of the majestic buildings.We were lucky that way in Abu Simbel, one of the best places to visit in Egypt. Egyptian guides to earn their bakshi (tip) feel obliged to give you a full description of the place, not forgetting to include an often repeated introduction to the history of Egypt. Guides also felt it was important to take one to visit various workshops making Egyptian artefacts or papyrus wall hangings. Always a free demonstration: how genuine alabaster vases are carved or the ancient art of making Papyrus paper rediscovered not too long ago. One was a school where 6 to 8-year-olds were being "taught" the art of weaving carpets, which however, they will not be able to do in adulthood with larger hands.

When I pointed out that importation of products made with child labour was banned they had a long explanation. They had heard the complaint before and had their story-line ready. Each place has its in-house tourist trap selling items at least two to three times the market price.

Only paper currency circulates in Egypt. The US$ was worth 6.20 Egyptian pounds written abbreviated as £E and equal to 100 piasters. There are five piaster notes worth less than a US penny.

The smallest note to circulate is 25 piasters. The notes particularly of lower denomination were dirty since they probably were allowed to circulate for lot longer than they should. Coins were last minted in 1994 and don't circulate. You can buy a packaged set of Egyptian coins in a tourist shop for 25 times the face value. Taxis in Egypt are not that expensive. They however, feel free to charge tourists three to four times the meter price. The cheapest mode of transportation is the public and private buses if you can work out which bus to catch.

Buses are not crowded and cost £E 0.5 a ride independent of the length, one stop or across Cairo. However be warned; communication is not always easy. One must always carry one’s destinations written large in Arabic and English to confirm the route when you get in the bus.

Returning by bus after a late trip to the Net-cafe, one day, the bus took off to the entrance to the freeway within walking distance from my hotel. It didn't really stop completely when the driver opened the door to let me out. I was lucky to walk away with only a bruised elbow. One needs many litres of bottled water a day for drinking and even washing one's mouth. Bottled water is a good source of income for the hotels which sell it for five times the market price. Despite all precautions, most tourists I was told get diarrhoea within a few days of coming to Egypt. For Japanese tourists it is a few hours. From a group of over 30 American tourists from Louisiana whom I met on the Nile cruise only four were OK, a few days into the trip, although they had followed all of the precautions and eaten only in five-star restaurants. I was glad to be more adapted for third world travel.

The last day was free, and was allocated for shopping. The recommendation was that no tourist should go away without buying from the Khan al-khalili bazaar in Cairo. I had already purchased the few items intended to take back and was not too motivated to visit another tourist market place however famous. I decided instead to visit Saqqarah about 20 km south of Giza.

The Pyramid Cataract hotel I was staying in is on the road from Giza to Saqqarah.As an optional tour the travel agent wanted $30 per person (a 2 person minimum) with guide for the trip.

The Hotel wanted $30 for a taxi for the round trip with an hour’s visit. So I walked out of the hotel and caught the first bus that came past. The driver nodded when I asked for Saqqarah. However I soon found out that was the Saqqarah village and not the "tourist site" with the Step Pyramid.

One of the highlights I wanted to see at Saqqarah were the tombs of the Apis bulls. A guide showed me around the Pyramid of Titi and the other two tombs. Just outside, one of the security guards was on a camel and I went over to take its photograph with the Step pyramid in the background. A Bedouin who spoke English approached me and offered to take me around the site on the camel. He asked for £E 80 which was more Egyptian money than I had then with me, so I showed him that I had only £E 65 and offered £E 40.

He agreed. A camel ride costs £E 4000 (US$650) so it seemed to me a fair price. I took a few photographs next to the decorated camel he called Sam and climbed on. Riding the camel was smooth at the slow pace with the Beduin walking in front. We then stopped for a photo stop. The Bedouin insisted that I switch head gear with him for the photos.

The Bedouin had worked out a series of poses and I followed his direction. Finally he asked me to stand on the camel. He may have been joking, but I was not going to refuse the challenge. It was clearly impossible without some support so I got his stick and stood up with a lot of faith that the camel would not move while the owner took his time over the photography. I am glad the narrow and high platform was more stable than the bus I had experienced the previous night.

He took me close to the monuments next to the Step pyramid and gave me time to explore the interesting ruins. Then he invited me to visit him the next time I came to Egypt. I asked the Bedouin if could take me to his place straightaway.

He pointed out his place in the distant horizon probably about a mile away and agreed. We left on a long ride across an oasis and through the adjoining Saqqarah village.

Finally we got to his home, which was not a tent but looked like a lower middle class home. The camel was tethered to the grill in front of the house and we walked in leaving our sandals at the door. He offered me a strong cup of tea, which I suspect could not have dissolved more sugar in it.

He lived on the ground floor of the building with his wife and invited me to see the two upper floors he was building for his two grown sons. The rooms had been built but the top floor still had no roof. In order not to waste space it was being used for his livestock. There were baby chicks in one room and pigeons in another. The top floor had ducks and even a large turkey, which took me by surprise. When that floor gets a roof I was told the livestock would go on the rooftop.

His two sons dropped in and said hello. One had heard about Sri Lanka as the land of Adam's Peak and the footprint. I had known of the association but never expected to hear it from a Bedouin in remote Egypt. It is probably identified in modern textbooks which translate the stories in the Koran.

I tried to get him talking on politics, but all I gathered was that he identified all four leaders Osama, Saddam, Bush and Blair as power hungry and not working in the interest of humanity. The Bedouins feel that Saddam let down the people of Iraq by not surrendering when he could have gone in to exile. They felt God didn't consider him worthy of a martyr’s death.

The meal took over two hours to arrive, steaming hot in one large dish with four spoons. The wife's brother and son joined us for the meal in traditional Beduin style. It was rice and chicken with something probably egg-based under the rice. It was by far the best chicken buriyani I have had for a long time.The meal over, it was time to go. I gave the Bedouin all the £E I had with me keeping just enough to catch a bus back to the hotel. He sent his son with me in the first bus to ensure I got on the correct bus that got me to the main Saqqarah-Giza road.

I remembered that my son Rhajiv after watching the travel channel had recommended that I meet up with a Beduin and have lunch at his home. I never expected to do it. I would not have got the opportunity if I didn't strike out on my own, independent of the Egyptian travel industry. I can now look back with fond memories of meeting a Bedouin, and having a meal with him off the beaten tracks of a camel ride to the Pyramids.

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