From Taxi Drivers To The Pyramids Of Cairo

Updated: Feb 26 2002, 05:30am hrs
Tarek is a cab driver.The cab company he works for pays him a fixed sum per month, regardless of the number of fares. I spend two days with him in Cairo and for those two days, he is a friend and a guide. And sometimes, part philosopher as well.

I reach in the evening and get hold of Tarek at the airport when I take a cab to the hotel. And realise that the main purpose behind coming to Cairo wont be served.

The purpose isnt the conference. That is the pretext. The main purpose is the pyramids and the Sphinx. But the seminar will go on both days till four in the afternoon. Too late for the pyramids and the Sphinx. Because entry closes by then.

On a first trip to Cairo, how can I go back and say I havent seen the pyramids Tarek has a suggestion. If I check into the hotel and leave immediately, he will see what can be done. So be it. By the time we reach the vicinity of the pyramids, it is nine at night.

But Tarek is resourceful. He knows Gamal and Gamal has a perfume (attar) shop and a stable. Perhaps Gamal can help. Indeed he can. However, we have to be careful. I have to pretend to be a villager. Otherwise, no one is allowed in. We cannot walk. It is too far. Will I prefer a horse (actually a pony) or a camel The fragrance of the attar has got to my head. Otherwise, why on earth do I opt for the camel

The camel bends its front knees. Then its back knees and sits down. Up I go and up goes the camel. I am hanging on for dear life to a hand hold on the saddle.

Grinning away, Tarek and Gamal put my feet into the stirrup. I take them out surreptitiously. Seems more secure that way. The camel is led by a boy whose name I dont know. Alongside is a guide named Hamid. Riding a pony, we set off. Tarek and Gamal remain at the shop, grinning and drinking bitter cups of coffee.

Past the village, towards the desert. Because there are cops, we have to approach the pyramids from the desert-side. Villagers wave. I have been instructed not to speak to them.

There are stray dogs and plenty of stray cats. The number of stray cats is remarkable and being Egypt, perhaps understandable. I decide to be polite.

Conversation helps reduce the nervousness. I ask Hamid what the camel and the pony are called. The camel is called California and the pony is called Sugar. Strange names.

Hamid decides to be polite. He asks me how many wives I have. Since this is an unexpected question, I almost fall off the camel. (I encounter this question later also.)

I am congratulating myself on having got a hang of the camel, when the boy who is leading the camel messes things up.

Yelay, yelay, he says. This tells the camel to hurry and run. We are on flat ground and the camel can afford to run. I am rocking to the left and rocking to the right.

Films are films. But real life running camels are a different matter. We are beyond the village and in the sand dunes now.

When the camel goes uphill, I am supposed to lean forward. When the camel goes downhill, I am supposed to lean back. I cannot see anything in the dark. Eventually, we reach the spot from where we have to walk.

Hamid and I walk up the dunes. There are nine pyramids, the three famous ones and six smaller ones. It is dark all around. The lights of the village and of Giza beyond that are hidden behind the dunes.

Sirius and Orion are up there in the night-sky. And in front us, the looming pyramids, especially that of Cheops. It seems as if civilisation stopped four thousand years ago.

Even Hamid, who must have been seen this sight hundreds of times, is silent with wonder. I am back on the camel. Hamid hands me an Egyptian cigarette. I light it silently, nervousness forgotten.

Camaraderie thus established, we make our way to between the pyramids of Cheops and Chepren. We must get closer to see the Sphinx. Although there is some moonlight, it is dark and I cant see much of the famous face.

But compared to photographs, the Sphinx is smaller. I had expected it to be huge. It isn't. Because of the perspective, photographs blow up the size.

We return to the shop, mission accomplished. I feel like shouting, Yelay, yelay.

It is twelve in the night. I feel I should compensate Gamal beyond the agreed price. So I unnecessarily buy loads of attar, fortified by cups of bitter coffee.

Back to the hotel and I manage to slime out of the seminar early next day. Tarek takes me to the Egyptian museum, two ancient churches and an ancient mosque. Then we are back at the pyramids for a sound and light show in Russian. It is magnificent, but no match for the experience the night before.

By the way, all kinds of people ask me about Amitabh Bachchan. Are you from India How is Amitabh Bachchan Are you married How many wives do you have That is the general order of questions.

Very friendly towards India, a somewhat unusual experience. This is festival time. Along various streets, you see masses of sheep and cows waiting patiently to be slaughtered. Sometimes, carcasses hanging from hooks.

Tarek drops me at the airport on the last day. Driving in Cairo is chaotic. There is a special way embassy cars are numbered in Cairo The most favoured country gets numbers beginning with 1, then 2 and so on. These numbers havent changed since Nasser. Number one is for Soviet Union, 5 for India. Can you become friendly with a cab driver in two days I think you can.

Why dont I flinch when he kisses me on the cheeks at the time of saying good-bye

His monthly salary is 270 Egyptian pounds which translates to roughly 2,700 Indian rupees. Not much. In the private sector, he would be paid the equivalent of 10,000 Indian rupees. But he prefers the security.

However, he is also critical of the quality of government supplied education and health care. He prefers the private sector option, though more expensive.

He is also planning a second marriage and promises to invite me.