Travel: Something in the Sand

  • Article by: PETER MANDEL , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 19, 2008 - 4:14 PM

Get your tickets to Egypt, where the daily parade of life swirls around timeless temples and tombs.

Egypt is afloat. ¶ I know it is a solid country, not a cruise ship. But here is the thing: To tour a Cairo museum, a dozen temples and a hundred tombs, you have to navigate its tides. ¶ I'm talking tides of tickets. Paper, not water. Tickets to get in. Tickets to take a peek. Tickets to leave. Tickets with color pictures of pyramids. And tickets officially stamped with silver antiquity seals. ¶ I use my first one, a humble orange 3-inch square, to visit the mummies in Cairo's Egyptian Museum. I am on a tour of Cairo and of the Nile. Dina Omar, our guide, is shuffling an orange stack and dealing tickets to the group like cards. Ragged, ripped-off stubs from the day before, the year, the decades before litter the ground and fly around in the hot breeze. ¶ "NO CAMERA," declares a sign at the museum entrance. "NO CELL PHONE." And "NO FOOD." Inside I move within a mass of people carrying Canons, enjoying snacks and pulling out their phones to photograph the masks and amulets of King Tut. ¶ I am tempted, but the serious look of so much polished gold makes me vow to be good.

Between the rooms of treasure I keep turning the wrong way and ending up in corners stacked with bits of hieroglyphics, tablets of uncataloged stone, and marble pedestals next to janitors' mops.

It is an exhilarating museum. I am an explorer here. I might discover a new mummy next to a closet for brooms.

There is a flurry of camera snaps and somebody tries out a flash. "The guards!" whispers our guide, shaking with anger. "They must be asleep!"

During our tour's three Cairo days, we discover this: Egypt is an ancient nation full of people peacefully napping on the job.

Bellhops snore in folding chairs beside the doors of hotels. Ticket clickers adeptly drop off in the seconds between their rips and punches. Even cart horses keep their heads relaxed as if in a dream.

Maybe it is the heat. I do not see a single cloud to interrupt it. It is as if the air is waiting, listening for something, before it moves. Shimmers rise from sidewalks and cars are baked to dullness by the sun.

•••

This giant city of 17 million is like a modern forest. Every rooftop bristles with groves of satellite dishes, iron rebars and struts. If a building stays unfinished it's exempted from tax. So nothing is complete except the minarets of mosques.

Nothing except the Pyramids at Giza on their high plateau. Approach them on the chalky, gravelly plain and you can see that the most imposing shape, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, is more Manhattan than it is Egypt.

It is skyscraper-high. Smoothly perfect. As if a 1930s World's Fair architect had sketched out the job and shipped 20th-century materials back in time.

I never knew you could climb up inside. But into a cave-like opening we go and, painstakingly, ducking heads in the dark, up and up a chimney-narrow passage until we get to the end. "This is the King's Chamber," whispers Patty Campbell from Arlington, Va. "We're two-thirds of the way to the top!"

It is a black box. No artifacts at all. No mummies. No view. "I get the feeling that we're not alone," adds Cindy Ranz of Boulder City, Nev. "Alone," says an echo in the room. We are back into the tunnel and sliding and stumbling quickly down.

•••

Our Nile ship, Sun Boat IV, is waiting for us in the southern Egyptian city of Luxor. To get there, the tour group boards a turboprop plane with a historic-looking "Spirit of St. Louis" shape. I do a double take at the logo on the fuselage: a drop of oil spurting out the top of a derrick. We're flying "Petroleum Air."

Despite a scary buzzing noise from up near the cockpit (something to do with pressure valves) we land in Luxor on time. Sun Boat IV turns out to be a high-style hotel that just happens to have engines and a crew so it can putter around.

I look forward to meeting our captain that night over cocktails in the lounge. Is it the smartly dressed black-jacketed guy with a mighty handshake? No, he works the gift shop. Is it the tall man with the military mustache? Nope, he mixes martinis in the bar.

Sun Boat IV, it turns out, is piloted by Capt. Amal, a short, elderly Egyptian man with a flowing caftan and purple scarf. "He grew up on the Nile," explains the ship's manager, "knows its currents well." I am pleased, especially when I learn that Capt. Amal's brother, Abdul-Amid, is ready with his own caftan and scarf to pitch in, if needed, at the helm.

The days ahead are a blur of Nile temples and tombs. Egyptian remains are so colossal and so intact they seem like something that belongs to the world of movies, sound sets from "The Wizard of Oz."

In the Valley of the Kings, the Tomb of Ramses IV is impossible to believe. Since it's ancient, it should be crumbling. Dust to dust. But somehow the colors are still alive down here under the ground. Blues of the Nile. Yellows of sand. Reds of sun.

The columns in Karnak Temple are as fat as beeches. High as pines. This is the favorite of our guide, Dina Omar. The biggest temple on Earth ever constructed for a single god.

She stares at the column tops, through to the sky, and laughs. "It once had 80,000 priests. And maybe there was room for more!"

•••

None of these sights sits alone on its horizon. Every monument comes with a circus. Its daily parade. There are donkeys pulling carts, strings of postcards for sale, guards with whistles, locals with their palms out itching for Egyptian pounds.

A man dispenses slabs of cardboard so you can fan yourself. A kingfisher flashes past, splashing brightness onto shaded stone. Businesses beg you to visit. Everything's for sale.

"See the Papyrus Institute!" shouts a sign. "We Have Swiss Management," boasts a crafts shop nearby.

A man representing "The Adventure Horse Club" cries out for customers along the side of a road. "Rides on horse and camel," he yells. "Horse and camel." And then, ominously, almost as an aside: "Sales of horse." I would be interested in riding, not in buying. But we do not have time.

One afternoon our bus turns a corner at a stand selling Egyptian snacks: The Lion-brand rice chips look good, but I do not have any more coins. When, seconds later, we bounce past something called "The Sphinx Carpet School," I am falling over near the front of the bus, waving and pointing, agitating to stop.

I want to see the rugs that are being schooled. I want to enroll. But we do not slow down.

"There are other rug stores," says Dina Omar.

So I try to explain. Maybe it's the sign itself that I like. The brand names. The high-style selling. Not the carpets.

The Lion on his bag of rice chips: not what's inside.

I am thinking about this during our last night on board. I will miss Egypt's billboards, which everyone ignores. Its institutes. Its clubs. Its broom-closet discovery chunks of stone.

I am alone on the sun deck of the Sun Boat IV where there is no more sun. A sandstorm -- a soft one -- is beginning to blow. In the dusk it is a blizzard of tiny hieroglyphics swirling down. I am sure I can see shapes as grains of sand reflect the light.

And I am certain: There is something in with the sand, whirling around.

I shade my eyes from the storm and stretch out for it. A gust sweeps past. So I make a lunge. I've got it. It's a scrap of paper. An orange square.

"Karnak Temple," it announces. "Admission: 50 Egyptian Pounds."

I picture the paper tides of Cairo. The torn-off stubs of Luxor. The flying tickets of the tombs.

This isn't mine, I think. It belongs to Egypt.

I move to the edge of the deck and lean as far as I can towards land. The storm is whistling, glittering, spinning. I do what I must do.

I give it back to the wind.

Peter Mandel has written children's books, including "Boats on the River" (Scholastic) and "My Ocean Liner" (Stemmer House). He lives in Providence, R.I.

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