Alison R Reed (also writing as Marianna Bell and Michael N Allison)

Part 3


Our exploration of the Gold Shop was an eye opener, in more ways than one!  The staggering range of gems was enough to take my breath away, but then a look into the back of the room revealed tables, plates, mugs and teapots all lavishly decorated with gold.  An evidently prosperous and rotund, clean-shaven man sat in state behind the large, wooden desk that occupied the corner of a small ante-room.  It was to him that all payment was made.  He frowned slightly as he jabbed viciously at the calculator in front of him: the conversion from Egyptian pounds to Cypriot euros was a matter of some moment evidently, then with a smile he jotted a figure down on a piece of paper and with a flourish, presented it to me.  It was my turn to frown as I mentally worked the exchange from Cypriot euros to British pounds.  It could have been worse, but then I had just purchased a solid silver ingot with my daughter's name in hieroglyphics and two spectacular large, white china mugs adorned with black and gold figures which sparkled brightly in the spotlights.

 

We must have been there for over an hour and I was surprised when everyone started drifting towards the open door of the coach.  I was also concerned: I'd paid for my ingot and hadn't got it, but that was all in hand, we were not to worry, apparently.  Just as we were about to pull away, a representative of the Gold Shop bounded breathlessly into the coach, clutching several small paper bags.  It seemed that I was not the only one waiting for jewellery and our guide took a few moments to decide which name was which before calling them out for us to claim.  Consequently, it was with a distinct sigh of relief that we alighted at our next destination. 

 

The British Museum in Cairo is a period piece.  A walk past the manicured lawns and up the steps is like stepping back into the 1920s.  A new Tutankhamun exhibition and a display of a dozen or so mummies have been added, but apart from that, I don't think anything has been changed since it was opened.  In the main halls, the glass cases perched precariously on spindly legs providing viewing from all sides whilst fantails of decaying knives and artefacts lay dejectedly in large, sloping, wooden-framed display cabinets.  Our guide held up her plastic paddle with the coach number on and herded us around a particularly well-worn chair which had been found in one tomb or another.  She was screaming her information to us whilst in direct competition the other guides were doing exactly the same.  Just a few steps away and we couldn't make out a word: her voice was swallowed up in the general din before floating into the void of the high ceiling. 

 

The Tutankhamun exhibition was something to be seen.  All the pictures you've ever seen of the mask don't do it justice.  It was more lavish, more magnificent - in fact it was more of everything than I had imagined!  Necklaces, ornaments, brooches, trinkets of all sorts; I was by turns impressed and disgusted.  How could just one man (and he not much more than a boy) have so much when all around him his subjects had so little?  Perhaps it’s my Methodist upbringing, but the flaunting of all that opulence seemed so wrong.  The mummies, on the other hand, were a different kettle of fish, so to speak.  Dark almost ebony coloured, shrunken and desiccated, their teeth seemed enormous in their heads, their skin clung to their bones like wrinkled clingfilm and there was even a sprouting of coarse fibres, the remains of a hairstyle of some importance.  They lay in their glass coffins under perpetual surveillance by thermometers and hygrometers all ready to sound the alarm at the slightest provocation; hardly the way to spend eternity.  It might be a purpose-built room but it is very different from the one in which they were reverently laid to start their journey to the stars. 

 

Although it was spotlessly clean, the whole museum had an aura of dust and antiquity and it wasn't long before fatigue and sensory overload took over and I needed a breath of fresh air.  A low wall in front of a luscious green swathe of grass made an excellent seat from which to watch the menace of bodyguards whilst they exchanged tips and stories.  Legs apart, arms akimbo and guns ostentatiously on show, they occasionally swept a watchful eye over the colourful throng before returning to the conversation in hand.  I took a long drink of water which, although it had been packed in my rucksack for most of the day, trickled its icy trail down my parched throat providing a very welcome relief from the stuffiness and the dryness of the museum.

 

By now I was beginning to wonder about the visit to the bazaar and the boat trip on the Nile, both of which had been promised during the welcome chat in Cyprus such a short time before.  It was close to 5 o'clock, the heat was abating, the sun hung low in the sky and we were back on the road again.  The guide explained that we were going to have tea afloat a Nile barge and we were to be entertained by traditional Egyptian dancers. 

 

Approaching a broad, brown band, we could see boats moored alongside the road, each one with a different theme: ours was ancient Egyptian with a Hollywood flavour.  A large, black man with a pleated white skirt and snowy headdress met us at the brightly lit lotus flowers that formed the entrance.  Down the wide wooden steps, past the resting pelicans nestled on the bank with their capacious bills resting on their breasts, we boarded our vessel.  The smell of engine oil and exhaust fumes enveloped us as we climbed a steep, narrow staircase to a large dining area richly decorated in red and green and gold.  I was impressed - even the waiters were colour co-ordinated!  We squeezed around the long tables, each covered in a long, white tablecloth that caressed our legs and threatened to throw the cutlery onto the floor as we wriggled ourselves into place.  All the while, four soberly dressed men in black suits, white shirts and bow ties, plucked or beat or blew or wailed to a traditional haunting melody.  The waiters scurried across and hurriedly deposited in front of each diner a plate with two white finger rolls (one with a slice of beef and the other with chicken), a small piece of tomato and one of cucumber and that was it.  As we ate, the music upped tempo and a pale, slender woman clad in gold with long black hair sinuously twirled and writhed in time to the beat.  When she finished and bowed herself out, a young man with dark moustache, red skirt and trousers, black boots and black turban threw himself energetically onto the dance floor where he gyrated and spun his skirt up and down, over his head and around just as if he was making an enormous pizza!  He mingled with the diners and grinned every time a camera flashed at him.  He was followed again by the young girl, this time in a slightly more conventional dress, and she took every photo opportunity that was offered.  Strangely enough, these tended to be the men who evidently wanted a shot of themselves with a scantily dressed female.  Later the guide said scathingly, “She couldn't have been proper Egyptian.”  Here she paused for dramatic effect before patting her stomach and adding, “not enough belly...” and we all laughed.

 

Dessert was three small Egyptian sweets, each only slightly larger than a marble and when the entertainment was over, we were able to go on deck and look around.  In all the excitement of the dining room, I hadn't noticed that the sun had set and that we were moving. 

 

Cairo by night was a completely different proposition from its daytime persona.  In the moonlight, the half-built apartments, houses with parts of walls missing, concrete shells waiting for brick in-fills vanished and in their wake was a world of mystery and excitement.  Huge, modern buildings towered on either side, their bright fluorescent lights reflected in the gently-rippling, inky-black water.  Chains of lights were strung like jewelled necklaces between lampposts, and wide, concrete steps led down to moorings for absent boats.  As we approached a bridge, there was a change in the engine noise, then we slowly traced a huge semi-circle and pointed our bow back the way we had come.

 

“Now we go to bazaar,” announced our guide cheerfully an hour later, once we were safely back on the coach.  Somehow she still had as much energy now as when we started – I could only suppose that she hadn't had to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning!  What was the bazaar doing, being open at nine o'clock at night?  But I suppose that we have 24 hour shopping here, so why shouldn't they have late-night opening too? 

 

The square where we parked was bounded by a large concrete building which housed a book shop amongst other things on one side, two rows of metal bollards ran off at right angles and in front of us was the bazaar.  Small groups of locals huddled together to watch the tourists.  Confidently, our guide led us towards a green-tiled, open-fronted shop where robed men puffed contentedly on hookahs whilst liquids bubbled gently in their pots.  Sometimes they chatted quietly, but mostly they sat and watched the world go by. 

 

“This is the entrance,” explained our guide.  “Don't get lost and be back in one hour!”

 

Two steps down the narrow passage between the two buildings and we were assailed by vendors, their goods spilling out of their tiny shops onto the tiled floor. 

“Only one pound,” said a deep voice and a man waved a purse at us.

“No, thank you,” we replied politely and I grasped Mike's hand firmly, glad that I had brought no money with me. 


We looked up and saw the walls towering above us; it was almost like being at the bottom of a deep well except for the bright lights, garish colours and strident voices each trying to outdo the others.  The tapering walls, stretching towards the stars, disappeared into the black night sky.  Lines were strung between the buildings over which was draped the washing but our attention was brought back to the mesmerising tunnel of light and noise stretching before us.  We came to an intersection and turned right.  In moments, the bazaar seemed to shrink ominously and adopted a sinister aspect.  We turned right again in the hope that it would take us back to the road, but it didn't.  Instead, it wound around and we found ourselves in a dingy alley with a young man of about 20 behind us; another lad stood in front.  We were surrounded!

“I take you through shop, no problem!” the one behind us insisted.

“No, thank you!” we replied together.  “I think we'd better go back the way we came,” Mike whispered to me.  I nodded, clutched his hand a little tighter and surreptitiously edged closer to him.

“No, it's alright!  I take you through!  This way!” and the man tried to herd us past the blankets and rugs that had spewed out onto the dirty pavement, falling haphazardly as if from a broken box.  His friend smiled showing black gaps where his teeth were missing, then he bowed slightly and gestured with his hands for us to go past him.

I looked at Mike and as one we whirled round, almost running away in our panic, 

“Is OK, go through shop!  Very quick!” floated out behind us.

 

Once more back in the security of the brightly lit bazaar, we slowed down and breathed a huge sigh only to be accosted again from each shop front,

 

“Come in!  Look!”

England for ever!”

“Look, only one pound!”

“You say you come back and see shop!”

 

In the end, we got so fed up with answering them that we resorted to the only little bit of Welsh that we could remember, “Dim dioch!”, “No, thank you!” in the hope that they would leave us alone.  It didn't work.  Even “Aberystwyth Abergavenny Llantrisant?” spoken in a querying voice elicited the response, “Yes I do!”

 

It was a relief to see others of our party waiting outside the bazaar with the guard on duty. 

 

“Oh!” said Mike.  “He's loaded his gun!”

“Wasn't it loaded before?” I asked, puzzled.  “How do you know?”

“You can see the magazine in it; I'm sure it wasn't there before.”

“Have you ever had to shoot anyone?”  It was an elderly woman in the party who voiced our thoughts.

“Yes, often,” replied the guard, fingering his trigger for a moment and pursing his lips.

“Have you ever ... killed ... anyone?” she breathed.

He looked at her and then said “Yes.  Several times.”

And just like that something else was dead - the conversation.

 

We huddled together, a dejected little group, wary of straying far from the guard when a girl of about nine or ten insinuated herself in to the circle and looked round.  Picking Mike as a likely target, she hugged his waist, kissed his stomach and then looked up at him,

“One pound!” she enunciated clearly.

Mike stared at her in disbelief then looked at a man in the group, “Try him!” he suggested.

She obediently went over and repeated the process.  As one we looked over at the guard and he obligingly stepped forward.

“Come on now, go away!” he suggested to the girl, with a slight smile.  He evidently recognised this as a harmless form of entrepreneurial activity but his attitude to the skinny, elderly, weather-beaten Egyptian in his shabby dishdash who insistently tried to sell us leather wallets also for a pound, was very different.  It was belligerent and threatening and the man was cowed for all of a quarter of an hour before chancing his luck again. 

 

By now it was ten o'clock and we were all dropping.  Our guide returned and with a big grin she asked, “You have good time?  Did you buy anything?”  We explained that if we had been left alone and not badgered, we would have happily spent money but the continual hassling put us off and I don't recall that anyone had succumbed.  Oh, except for a little girl who was now the proud possessor of a startlingly pink and sparkly party wig ! 

 

So we drove through the night, past impressive mosques, hotels decorated with the traditional carved geometric designs and palm-trees lighted with unnatural colours.  We passed cars with flashing headlights, cars lit up with blue neon tubes, cars with no lights and cars that darted here and there with the same devil-may-care abandon with which they drove in the day, nevertheless, we reached the airport safely and were ushered through a deserted concourse onto a bus.  I sank into the confines of the airplane seat with real gratitude.

 

It was after half-past midnight by the time we got to the hotel and one o'clock by the time we tumbled into bed.  We set the alarm for 7 o'clock.  It was the 4-wheel drive up into the Troodos Mountains in the morning...