There is a camel.
There are many camels, actually. Large, lanky, innately awkward. They are harnessed into colorful saddles with stiff leather bits wedged between their large, drooping lips.
They sit, mostly. It's a quiet Wednesday afternoon in the desert and the camels are scattered about the dunes. Lounging, silent. Gazing, serene. A few rays of sunlight break through the thick grey blanket of clouds, and a strong wind blows in from the east.
I pull my camera from my pack and drop a knee into the cold sand. I watch the camel, this first camel, through the small illuminated window of the electronic viewfinder. The camel snorts, and I release the shutter.
A voice calls from behind. A man some twenty meters away hurries over. Hand outstretched, palm upward to the darkening sky. "You pay," he calls before he even reaches me.
"Uhh, la shukran," I reply. No thank you.
"You take a picture of my camel. You owe me money."
I roll my eyes. "No, no thanks." It's been a long day, and I don't have the patience for a debate over the ownership of other sentient beings, nor the legality of taking photographs in public space. I'm happy to pay the camel directly for the portrait, but he's still sitting calmly in the sand and doesn't seem bothered in the least by my intrusion.
The man and I are now face to face, and his hand finds his way onto my shoulder. His visage flickers between moments of feigned politeness and hints of genuine malice. "You pay me! How much?"
I reiterate my initial offer: nothing. I begin to turn around, but the hand curls into a claw and tightens around my jacket. My voice rises a little and it's enough to scare his grip loose. I pull away and walk west, heavy steps in the coarse sand. The man is left muttering something begrudging about Americans or tourists or whomever to his camel.
The camel remains indifferent, his lax eyes fixed disinterestedly ahead toward the Great Pyramids of Giza. He snorts again.
And so we have reached Egypt. Not on bike, or not entirely anyway. That was perhaps the plan, maybe the plan, aspirationally the plan at one point or another. There's no particular reason that plan changed, no one thing substantial enough to alter our itinerary, but rather a small host of minor factors that, added together, amounted to what might be called a Compelling Reason.
There was the matter of heat: constant, stifling, worsening as the summer months set in. That and the trivial trifles of flies and gnats and mosquitoes birthing with the beginning of the sub-Saharan rains. Of dirt roads made impassable once those rains turn them to mud and muck. A knee injury of Lauren's sure to worsen without some proper rest. Post-election security concerns in Kenya, rock-throwing children in Ethiopia, an uncertain and undoubtedly expensive visa application in Sudan, the nuisance of a required military escort along a substantial section of the Nile in Egypt. The absence of a trans-Mediterranean ferry from Cairo and thus the need for a flight out of eastern Africa anyway. And, ultimately, the slowly dawning realization that the leisurely pace at which we've been traveling would spell at least another six months on the continent, dumping us into Europe and Asia at the wrong time of year for where we're headed.
All small things, compounding, their combined mass weighing on us as we slowly crawled north through Malawi and into Tanzania. And so back in Mbeya we bought flights, and back in Dar es Salaam we boarded a plane, and in just a few short hours we were spirited half a continent away. And now, we are in Egypt.
Albeit briefly. We have an eighteen-hour layover in Cairo. We have learned, just yesterday, that our tickets with EgyptAir and the length of our layover entitle us to a complimentary hotel night and two complimentary meal vouchers each, plus visa-free entry to Egypt for the day.
We have little time, but lots to do.
These are the circumstances that have brought us—these circumstances plus one very aggressive cab driver and one very terrifying taxi ride across the sprawling, chaotic metropolis of Cairo—to Giza and to the camel in the sand and to the man with the firm grip and, most memorably, to the three ancient pyramids and the one very old Sphinx that we've come to see.
The Great Pyramids of Giza are truly a marvel. We tend to think of ruins as ruins, antiquity as all the same, the gradations between old and very old insignificant or otherwise lost to time. You go to Athens to see the Parthenon and you go to Cairo to see the necropolis and then you come home and say, well, I've seen some ancient history. But the pyramids, completed by 2,500 BCE, were ancient before the Greeks even hit their stride. The ancient Greeks are about as old to us as the ancient Egyptians were to them. These pyramids: they are very, very old things.
And yet, five thousand years later, here they are. A little worse for wear, sure, a little weathered by wind and time. Some stones have crumbled and the facade isn't what it once was and the interior has of course been ransacked until only the dirt and dust remain. But looking back at the sheer quantity of Formerly Built Things humans have destroyed in our short, brief flirtation with civilization, it's a wonder we haven't managed to blow these up, too.
Anyway. Desert, dunes, pyramids, Sphinx. Oh, and a Pizza Hut as well. A Pizza Hut and a KFC and plenty else.
In the postcards, shot from the east, you'd think the necropolis sits all alone in the quiet desert. Remote, distant, accessible only by camel or four-wheel drive. But Giza is a town. A loud, busy one. The pyramids are removed from Giza about as much as Battery Park is removed from Manhattan. From the inside of the Pizza Hut to the foot of the Sphinx is maybe two or three hundred meters. Maybe less.
Yet turn west and it's easy to forget all that. Turn west and it's nothing but dunes; dunes for miles, dunes for days. Head west and these dunes will take you straight to Morocco. And from this perspective, the pyramids are still quite wonderful. Almost spell-binding.
Almost. Because while there may be five-thousand-year-old ruins and the illusion of remoteness and a gorgeous, dramatic tangle of storm clouds overhead, there are also camels and the men that pull and beat the camels through the sand each and every day. And though the camels, strangely built as they may be, are nevertheless charming in their awkward affectation, the men who roam the dunes are far less so.
"Do you want a camel ride?" they ask, politely.
"No thank you," you respond.
"But you don't even know how much it costs," comes the reply, a little less friendly in tone.
"Right. Because I do not want a camel ride," you explain.
"But how can you not want a camel ride if you don't know much it costs for a camel ride?"
"Because if I do not want the thing, the cost does not matter."
"But it's cheap. So maybe you would like one. Tell me: would you like a camel ride?"
And so it goes.
Grievances aside, our time in Cairo is brief yet blissful. We see the pyramids and we see the Sphinx and then we take a little walk around Tahrir Square and downtown Cairo. It is a city bigger and noisier and throbbing with an intensity greater than any other we've seen in Africa. Soon we grow tired and hungry and lethargic from our long day, a day that began at 3AM many thousands of kilometers away. There is a warm bed and a bottomless buffet awaiting us back at the hotel. And so we return for dinner and some rest.
Morning comes and we pack our things. Most of our possessions—our tent, our gear, our bikes—have spent the night in a pair of cardboard boxes beneath the Cairo Airport. It's strange to be without them, and we hope to see them again soon.
A shuttle bus is waiting for us out front. A small sliver of sun edges over the horizon. It's cold here, in Egypt, if I haven't mentioned. The morning is brisk, jacket weather, and it's a refreshing change from the heavy, muggy mornings of Dar es Salaam. We zip our coats and climb aboard. And a few hours later, we are seated on another plane. It taxis onto the runway. It lifts an unimaginable mass of aluminum and human flesh and single-serving salad dressing packets into the air. Above Cairo, above Giza. It turns west.
Turn west and it's nothing but dunes: dunes for miles, dunes for days. Head west and these dunes will take you across the Sahara, across vast expanses of empty earth. Featureless. Barren. Yet alive too. Ephemeral, always changing.
Head west, and these dunes will take you to Morocco.