This trip almost didn’t happen. Between a stomach bug and threats of terrorism, I nearly cancelled our trip to Cairo. But when my father died, just about 3 years ago — from complications of Alzheimer’s disease — I swore to impart my son David with adventure, not fear. I had my doubts, though, but after much hemming and hawing and ticket changing, I decided not to let vomit and violence stop us from seeing this part of world. So off we went to a country founded in 3150 BC — a place of living history. Of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, only the Great Pyramid is still intact today.
Midway through our three-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Cairo, somewhere over the Sinai Peninsula, I was hit with what I can only describe as extreme loneliness. It was as if I were headed to the Gulag for a lifetime of exile and slave labor. I felt the loss of my father more acutely than I had in more than a year. My father visited Egypt twice in his lifetime, and because of his enthusiasm for the place, I was en route to my second trip to the North African country. I sat with my grief as we flew over the Suez Canal. My history and world history in some kind of desert vortex in my heart.
We landed before dusk, and were met by our guide Marcous, who ushered us to our car and driver. Marcous had a warm smile, and was very calm. We needed him.
“How far to our hotel in Giza?” I asked.
“Usually 45 minutes,” he answered, sweetly. “But probably two hours because of traffic. We’ll take the circle road around Cairo and that should help.”
David and I looked at each other and shrugged.
We motored along for a few minutes before THE TRAFFIC entered the picture. Cairo is a city of 25 million people, all of whom (it seemed) decided to go out on the highway and play bumper cars for the evening. No one stays in their lane. No one uses their signal. THERE ARE NO RULES. And everyone is honking every second. At one point, to shave a few minutes off our journey, our driver careened onto a dirt road, where we battled pedestrians, bikes and even oncoming cars. At one point, I gasped loudly.
“Welcome to Cairo,” said our driver, who slammed on the brakes every 1.7 seconds. I was very close to begging him to return us to the airport. My bad feelings had gotten worse. In fact, being deported from India was more fun.
David was pale green from car sickness by the time we arrive at the hotel in Giza. This hotel shall remain nameless but I will forever know it as HELL. Everything was broken. The service. The food. The tv. The Internet. I actually think the place has not made a change or improvement since Carter was President. I knew going to Egypt would be like going back in time, but not to the seventies!
I reminded myself that this was not Egypt’s fault. Everyone is doing the best they can. Since the Arab Spring, just like in Jordan, tourism is way down. Hundreds of guide companies and Nile cruise companies have closed. There is no money for upgrades. There is no money for infrastructure improvement. There is no money. And the ISIS/ISIL situation is keeping any still remotely interested tourists at bay. These are hard times in the Middle East, as I realize whenever I leave Abu Dhabi, aka “the richest city” in the modern world.
David and I woke up bright and early on Friday, March 13 for our day-long tour of the Pyramids and Sphinx in Giza, then Sakkara and Memphis (the original capital of Egypt). Yes, Friday the 13th. The heaviness in me got heavier. By 9 a.m., though, we were on our way and Marcous’ smile brought one to my face.
Before we walked up to the Great Pyramid, and each site thereafter, Marcous knelt down in the desert sand and drew a map of the area to be explored. An elegant way to introduce us to what we were about to see.
There are nine pyramids in Giza (110 pyramids in Egypt). The Great Pyramid is the tomb of Pharaoh Cheops. David and I walked up and down and all around Cheops’ resting place before taking a camel named Casanova to see the pyramids for his son and grandson and their queens. By the way, the word Sahara means desert. So you don’t have to say the Sahara Desert — the beginning of which is in Giza.
Riding a camel is groovy once you relax and get into the camel groove. But first the camel has to get from his knees to his feet. This brief event is horrifying because for a few terrifying seconds you are at an impossible 90-degree angle and feel like you will cascade over the camel’s head onto your head into the sand. David was so scared that he cried out. To comfort him, I held onto him with all of my arm strength and onto Casanova the camel with all of my leg strength. When our ride ended, I could barely walk. (Still can’t.) I believe camel-riding may be the antidote for cellulite. Oh, by the way, Casanova was a real love.
Our next stop was Sakkara, home of the first and therefore oldest pyramid. (About 30 minutes outside Giza by car, not camel.) Sakkara was imagined and designed for King Djoser by Imhotep —who some say may be the first true genius in recorded history. Imhotep was later deified as the god of wisdom and medicine.
Sakkara isn’t on everyone’s to-do list, although it should be. David and I were able to enter a tomb and see the sarcophagus (coffin) of Djoser. Marcous told us about the mummifying process and what goes where and how. When a King dies, all his organs — except his heart — are removed and put in separate jars.
Shivers went down my spine.
“Marcous, are you saying they put the brains in a jar?”
“Yes, but the heart stays inside. When the king gets to the middle part of the hereafter, his heart is weighed. If it is light, then he can enter heaven. If it is heavy, the gods eat it.”
I jumped with joy upon hearing this news. (Not the eating the heart part.) Our trip to Cairo, and all it’s accompanying mixed emotions and the wretched traffic and terrorist threats suddenly made sense to me.
THE BRAINS OF THE KINGS OF EGYPT WERE PUT IN JARS.
I reluctantly yet ardently had come all this way for some kind of full-circle redemption that I didn’t know I’d find. The story of my father — a man who put his own father’s brain in a jar — was complete. A story I turned into a book by the same name and concluded with the following sentence: It’s the heart that belongs in a jar.
Thank you Egypt, for the most profound and difficult 40.5 hours I’ve spent anywhere. You were worth every second of your challenges and chaos, which is exactly what my father taught me about you — and life.