First stop: the Egyptian Museum. There are swarms of tourist groups and we shuffle between antiquities. Statues, tombs, jewelry, sarcophagi. King Tut, Queen Hatsetshup. It’s interesting, but it blends together after a little while. Luckily, we have a full schedule and our group leaders are on point to get us to the next destination.
Next is The Citadel, or the Mohammed Ali Mosque (not the boxer). The mosque is like a castle, enormous and grand. Spires and domes shoot skywards and minarets soar even higher. Beyond the front gate, we walk in a spacious courtyard and into the giant building. Beautiful frescoes and cupolas line the ceiling and elaborate but worn chandeliers hang from the spires. There is a majesty here that inspires one to reflect on a power, greater than themselves.
The locals are fascinated by our group. Many ask for pictures with us, especially the girl in our group with long blond tresses. Others wave and smile from the roadside as we pass. We receive a police escort because of the size of this group and our American status. I am still a little shocked by the sight of all of the AK-47s, and the very young men who hold them. But they’re here for our protection.
Hawkers of trinkets, stamps, and coin purses are assertive, bordering on aggressive. They approach us relentlessly, despite refusals. But I admire the entrepreneurial spirit. I’m sure they have families to feed.
We stop for lunch at Atlantas, a restaurant on the banks of the Nile that offers sweeping views. Lunch for 50 rolls out quickly: spicy grilled chicken, lamb sausage, baba ganoush, pita, and a salad of tomato and cucumber.
Onwards to the Hanging Church, a Christian church built in the second century in a spot that the holy family visited and over the ruins of the Roman fortress. The church is lined with 17th century paintings of saints and relics of martyrs lay in glass cabinets near devotional candles. Tourists of every conceivable background wander the church and wander into a cave where the holy family stayed.
We’ve also bought traditional Arab headscarves to protect against the wind. Victor lived in the Middle East for a decade, so he helps everyone with different configurations of the scarves before we set off. I wear a blue checkered one. We rumble through the village, dodging horse drawn carts and veering perilously close to buildings and people going about their day.
When we reach the dessert, I punch the throttle and we soar over rock hewn ridges of sand. Victor is on the back and he moves closer as the 4-wheeler bucks and slides. Clouds of dust sweep behind us and I’m glad for the head scarf that covers my face.
“Look!” Victor implores.
On my left the Great Pyramids rise from the desert floor and touch the sky. Pure transcendence. We reach a plateau and dismount. This is one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. The wind wips up, creating an amber colored sky, and I hop on the back of a camel. We snap pictures with the pyramids in the background and stand in awe of our surroundings.
This is as good as it gets, and I’m lucky to realize it while it happens.
We speed back through the desert, myself on the back this time. I hang on with white knuckles while the vehicle pitches under Victor’s control. Several ATVs that stall, but the young boys that act as guides are savvy to the temperamental engines.
They pull rip cords and clink rocks against the engines block. They are serious and pushy for kids, but they get the engines started.
We adjust our schedule to allow for a couple of shopping stops on the way back. The first is a “perfumery” that provides the essential oils used to make the finest colognes and perfumes on the globe. The big fashion houses use them to make their name brand scents.
Next door is a print shop. Colorful images of Egypt are painted into papyrus, an ancient practice. It’s chilly and we are ready to get back to the hotel.
Dust covered and sticky from the oils, all I really want is a hot shower and clean sheets. The bus ride is quiet. People nod off and others plan cocktails on return.
We decide to eat before we settle in. It isn’t until we are sitting with hookahs smoking and sipping freshly pressed mango juice, that our server informs us that the kitchen isn’t open yet (It’s 8:30 pm). We go back Tikka Chicken , which isn’t disappointing.
Back in the room, after a lukewarm shower, Victor delivers me a video he compiled for my birthday away from home. The music tugs on my heartstrings. Images from my boyhood fill the screen. I get messages sent from my most loved ones. They sing happy birthday, and wish me the very best while I am away