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Thursday, November 24, 2011

pyramids and protests(not that kind)

“How much should I pay to go see the pyramids?”
“It doesn't matter whatever they say you'll pay more”

 In high school my headmaster was Mr. Gortaza. He inspired a lot of respect in Strathmore, there were rumours he was offered a job in NASA but turned it down in order to do this and teach physics. And he taught it so well. In my school physics was the subject you took. The one where an A~ was within grasp of anyone who tried just a little harder than the rest who all got a B+.The day after Dr. Griffin of Starehe died we were having a lesson and somehow we told him of the death of the old man [he hadn't heard of it yet]. These being two of the best schools in the country am sure they knew each other and maybe had that friendly rivalry cold war novels like us to believe existed between British and German spy chiefs. He took off his glasses and said “now I can't concentrate.” he blinked a couple of times and then with a strength that I will never forget he continued the lesson. Holding his sorrow for private moments. I was forever shaken by this, the idea that death would become such a part of life the longer we lived. He also said, in a completely different context, that he wasn't impressed by the pyramids since if you pour sand from your hands it forms that same shape. Really? We all asked but he was much smarter than us so maybe he had something there.

The approach to the pyramids is done on horseback. I have never ridden a horse before. Never even touched one all I have done is admire them from afar and wished upon a distant star which luckily heard me on this one day. Her name was Aziza. She wasn't a warhorse, she wasn't a racing horse she had no pedigree but I loved her all the same. Horse riding lessons are surprisingly easy if the horse you are riding is trained to listen to only her owner's voice. Still I got the reins and was given my first riding lesson , pull left to go left, pull right to go right, pull back to stop, lean forward to go forward. Riding for dummies. Speed controls, I wasn't given that. Some people got camels since the pyramids are deserted[bad pun but economical] but I wanted Aziza, she was chocolate with a spot on her forehead, impetuous and stubborn, complicated and in need of a cuddling she would never accept just the kind I fall for.

You can't put your foot too far into the stirrup because horses have been known to fall and when that happens you want a quick disengage. I had been told about the blue balls feeling girls like this give so I was ready to do some bouncing around as she galloped so that I didn't get hurt. We started off at a trot and it was nice, just sitting on the horse was enough. You feel like a prince, I leaned back and had the reins in my right hand, a hiss came from behind me hearing this the horse was ready to go.

Slowly ever so slowly and beneath me I could feel all that horsepower begging to be unleashed on the world. I tried hissing her into action like her handler did but her ears had no time to listen to my feeble attempts at control. So I asked the guide to let her free. Please just once I said and he agreed, he did give me one piece of advice though, ride her like you would a woman.

Ksss! Ksss! He said and off we were. The wind reaching for my hairs and me moving faster than it could, the horse beneath me galloping faster and faster and finally I found a rhythm, Aziza and I moved as one, now up, now down. Slowly making it more rhythmic knowing we had all the time in the world. There was no hurry to get to where we were going and in our restrained patience we got there faster and faster. Up and down we rode, I let out a whoop of joy the cold forgotten, the wind an ally that told me how fast we were going. The desert before me and the pyramids at the end of them, racing a friend of mine explorers of a bygone age, an age when looting brought to mind romanticism not desperation and floods. And then it stopped. I tried to get her to go again but Aziza wouldn't listen to me. My friend told me when we had come to a stop that he now understood why there were so many wars once upon a time, horse riding. Getting on those horses gives you a sense of godhead or at least kingshead, I wanted to conquer, I wanted a sword, an arrow, a trumpet. I wanted an army at my back that would be inspired by my mindless headlong rush into enemy forces and then follow too buoyed by my courage.

The sun setting over the pyramids, right over them giving a golden glow to these epic monuments. Finding its way down, sinking into oblivion and darkness, the pyramids in this scene look far off and dark, black outlines against the yellow fire. That’s how they look from a distance, smooth and heaven-made but up close it was different. There were ridges and cuts in the stones. The stones were piles carelessly thrown and heaped, breaking off pieces of each other in the process. They looked real to me. Mountains that men had painstakingly carved from the sand, offering them up as sacrifice to their kings and gods. The pyramids looked human, humans are scarred and scary. Up close all beauty dissolves into reality, the reality of flaws, the reality of time and the reality of memories up close nothing looks perfect, under a microscope the cleanest of  lives is swimming in dirt. Sometimes I think that's where the true beauty lies, in the scars and memories the imperfections and trials, the sweat and stone.  The idea of the pyramid as a diamond of stone smooth edged and dropped in the middle of Egypt like some kind of shuttle doesn't hold on closer inspection. They look sweated over and sweated on. They look like work sites where people slipped and died numerous times. They look like stone scorched by the desert sun, scrubbed by the desert sand and served by the desert's sons. And I loved them for it.

Now to the protests.

We got off the metro at Giza and started walking not knowing where we were going. Soon a friendly Egyptian came up to us and began talking to us. He offered to take us to the pyramids since he lived close to them. He was charming as all of them seem to be. Very friendly with a gift of the garb. He had on a puma tracksuit with the date Jan 25 stencilled on it. I took advantage of the opportunity quiz him on the revolution. He offered to get us a good deal on the pyramids by taking us to this guy he knew who was a government official. He paid our fare saying, “its just money, money comes and goes,” when we protested this.

He took us to an office and had a talk in Arabic with the guy there. Egypt is a tourist country and like many of them has different prices for foreigners and citizens to se the local sites. Six Egyptian pounds make one dollar, one Egyptian pound is a little less than twenty shillings. When he refused to talk about money until we were on our horses the first stirrings of suspicion centred. But we got what we thought was a good price. The owner told us he would pay our entrance and allow us the horses and camels for ninety minutes at 150 pounds. The entrance he said was 120 pounds since there was a sphinx ticket and a pyramids ticket(each at 60 pounds). There was a pyramids ticket but the sphinx ticket does not exist we heard later on. All we knew was that we had only seen one ticket and that we were determined to get back the money we paid for the other one. We agreed on solidarity and started riding back.

On the way back I gave my most ingratiating smile to the police and greeted them in my its~bad~but~at~least~am~trying Arabic. We might need them later. We trotted to the office, the horses knew the way, relations between us and the guide had been soured by the fact that we had been cheated.

We got off the horses and began our protest. The first man we spoke to told us the manager was off at his prayers. We explained the problem we had as clearly and succinctly as we could. We paid to see the sphinx and we didn't see it, we were told it was because we were too late, that's well and good but since you didn't buy the tickets already can we have our money back [that the sphinx had been closed was the reason our guide had given us for us not seeing it.] he told us that the other ticket had been bought and left at the gate. “didn't you see it being torn off.” it's ok to be cheated this is life, it happens, it's how we learn not to trust but I hate being cheated so brazenly thankfully I was with people who hate being cheated too. I told him the truth that I thought he was lying and he shut down completely, “if you think am a liar we can't talk any more, wait for the owner.”

I was asked to drop that weapon from my arsenal something I gladly did. Then the owner came. He already disliked me since I had tried to pay for the horses and the tickets separately and now here I was with my group demanding our money back.
“What money?”
“The money for the sphinx.”
“Its not me who closed the sphinx, its the government”
“Ok but can you give us the money since it was closed it means you didn't use it.”
“What money?”

That conversation had more reincarnations than a snail on the way to Buddhist enlightenment. He got angry at us and stalked off. He had no more time to talk to us but we didn't let off. We called our “friend” who had brought us there because now we were clutching at straws. He came back and then the argument got two major centres, he asked us to come out of the office so he could talk to us. I stayed behind deciding to irritate the owner.

“...since we didn't see the sphinx we want out money back...”I repeated this over and over, an automaton on automatic. He listened getting more and more angry, his friend was there witnessing this impetuous child do this and couldn't stand it and asked me rather harshly to stop. They told our “friend” and he got me out, saying that he thought I had gone a little crazy in there. Maybe I had, my anger carried me away on a sea of emotion, and I jumped up and down like a little child and shouted over and over that I was very angry. He spoke to me in Arabic and I replied in Swahili being as creative with insults as I have in a while. We went round and round. Now all of us being called off, now some of us hanging back. Arguing here arguing there. In the office, our voices being carried higher and higher. Us calling threats of the police down on his head, him staring resolutely forward and not being moved. I am government he said, the police don't scare me. In the middle of all this the puma was offering us another deal, all through the day they had seeded the conversation with hints to other pyramids 3,000 years older than the ones we had seen. He offered to take us to them even though tourists aren't allowed to go  there but he "knew a guy who was related to a guy who…"

Ten minutes of resolution became twenty of frustration became thirty of anger  became forty of exasperation and still we stood  and shouted, haggled and hassled  then we heard the magic words.
“Lets make a deal.”
He offered us 20 back each we turned it down,
We offered him to give us 30 back each he turned us down.
He took out a crisp 100 pound and said either that or nothing.
This being 25 each we took it.

We walked off accompanied by our “friend”.  At this point he was still pretending that he was our friend, he acted hurt and cheated, he couldn't understand why we had done what we had done.
"its just money, money comes and goes,” he repeated. To which one of our party quipped.
"it comes from our pockets and goes into yours."

We left him at the matatu stage.
What do you want to eat?
“Anything that's not Egyptian” was the general consensus.
A few minutes later our “friend” has the nerve to call and ask to talk to the “girl.” with the same balls that built a structure like the pyramids he asks her out on a date.