Behind us was the neon-lit Pizza Hut and in front, flanked by three great pyramids and acres of sand, the Sphinx serenely rested on his paws as he had done for millenia. It was a startling juxtaposition of modernity and antiquity. Sandaled children chased us, waving postcards and bags whilst others tried to tempt us to the souvenir-laden trestle tables, their young faces earnest and determined to make a living from the Egypt-hungry visitors.
Once again safe in our high, plush seats and protected by the rickety chain-link fence surrounding the coach park, we held our breaths as the driver threaded his way gingerly between vehicles and people and then jolted along the rutted sand track. In minutes we joined the tarmac road and moments later we were embroiled in a 21st century traffic jam with cars, lorries, donkeys and carts converging on us from all directions. I suddenly found myself eye to eye with a camel which was securely strapped down onto the back of a dented pick-up truck. He looked around in disgust whilst I gazed around in disbelief. Nobody else batted an eyelid.
Back amid the hustle and bustle of modern Cairo, we drove along a dual carriageway totally different from any that I've seen before. Houses and shops opened directly onto a road with no noticeable pavement and down the centre ran a watercourse, bounded on both sides by 6' high, painted concrete walls. Piles of plastic carrier bags, filled with rubbish and knotted, had been stranded in huge heaps by the bridges when the river had shrunk to a measly trickle. Even with the level this low, the fields that punctuated the urban sprawl were lush and green. Men, women and children toiled to produce some of the most mouth-watering vegetables I've ever seen. I craned my neck to admire creamy white cauliflowers the size of beach balls, luscious fist-sized tomatoes, and carrots a foot or more long with feathery plumes which nodded gently as together they tempted passers'-by. Cars stopped anywhere, anyhow, for the drivers to haggle with the stooping, wrinkle-faced farmers pushing the groaning barrows. Each purchase took several minutes and when finally a few well-worn notes were exchanged, the bags of vegetables were laid lovingly onto the passenger seat before the driver recklessly nosed his car back into the traffic.
I was so engrossed with everyday life that for a few moments
I didn't realise that we had reached our next destination. This
We heaved ourselves back into the coach and rejoined the chaotic traffic of the streets to alight again in a very few minutes but this time it was before a modern, two-storey building. We were ushered through a vast, echoing marble entrance hall which felt cool and fresh in comparison with the rising temperature outside. The wide, shallow steps took us up to an enormous room lined with a dark red carpet adorned with gold and white flowers and it was hard to decide if the slightly mottled appearance was due to it being hand made or whether it had just seen better days. In retrospect, I suspect that it had seen a lot of western feet. Round tables with crisp white napery and sparkling glasses just begged for company and I selected two likely chairs on which to deposit our tie-dye sun hats which we had purchased in haste the day before. The food was self-service and the choice was tremendous: chicken, lamb, fish, vegetables and pasta rested provocatively in heated dishes and we indulged ourselves with a little of this and a smidgen of that, just a taste of that one over there and maybe just the tiniest spoonful of that other one ... all the time, the savoury, spicy aromas wafted over, wickedly twisting and curling and teasing our senses until we were, like Eve, tempted beyond endurance. And then after we thought that was it, we found the starters - how embarrassing! But nothing daunted, we brazened it out just as if we normally ate our meals in a random order. They and the desserts were duly savoured and although there were a couple of dishes that I wouldn't mind never having again, it was an experience that I would not have missed.
After a quick 'comfort break', we were off to the Gold Shop which consisted of several, small interlinking rooms in an unimposing entrance off a suitably bland street. But that was where the mediocrity stopped. The spotlights picked out boiling hot reds; evocative Mediterranean blues; milky opalescent pearls; yellows brighter than the fattest buttercup; sharp, cutting white diamonds and greens so deep and so varied that they covered the entire spectrum of a tropical rain forest. It was breathtaking and it was the second feast of the day, but this time it was the eyes that were satiated.