Seeing the pyramids of Giza for the first time is a bit like falling in love.
All the sounds around you fade away and you feel like you’re finally meeting for the first time a friend you’ve known all your life.
Then the clamour kicks in, and it's like meeting your new flame’s entire joint family on your first date. As the camel owners and t-shirt sellers tug at your sleeve, you yearn to be alone. To just marvel at what you’ve found. To gaze and walk about and gaze again.
Thankfully, I found a way for us to be alone again.
The Giza complex shuts at 4.30 pm. And when the guards began to blow their whistles, I walked out into the desert rather than back towards the main gate.
It was mainly so that I wouldn’t have to hear more tourists discuss their sunburn or meet more youngsters desperate to sell me traditional Egyptian headgear.
But as I turned around on top of a little sand dune to get my bearings, I realised I had finally found what I was looking for.
All around me was the desert, golden ripples of sand undisturbed. Way in the distance was the haze of Cairo and Giza. And in the middle, bronze and majestic, were the 5,000-year-old tombs of stone.
Rows of people, tiny as ants, were heading for the gate in the distance. After they were gone, it was still and silent, except for the wind in the dunes.
A tiny police jeep would drive up and down the main road in the distance every half hour. And as the sun began to set, a couple of glorious hours later, three men and their horses walked off into the distance across the sand.
I saw a different side of the struggling local street peddlar on this side of the boundary wall.
There was no more clamouring for a few pounds, no more endless chatter about “beeyooteeful Indiya” and Amitabh Bachchan.
As they walked past, talking quietly among themselves or checking on their camels, they became Egyptians again, timeless and at home.
They smiled a little smile at your awe. You had just found The One. But they didn’t mind sharing.
The melting pot
THE HEART of Cairo is the Khan el-Khalili market. It’s where tourists from around the world mill about collecting souvenirs. And it’s where Egypt’s unemployed gather to sip steaming cups of black tea and puff at the hookah.
The narrow lanes leading off from each other all boast large bronze replicas of Tutankhamen’s death mask, pyramids of all sizes and rows and rows of hookahs.
The larger cafés have glass fronts, fancy cosmopolitan menus and crowds of boisterous foreigners speaking languages from around the world.
But the tiny streetside ones are like being invited into an Egyptian home. A large family, led by the proud man of the house, take their seats around a wooden table and order a round of Coca Cola.
The children grin at this rare treat — urban inflation is at over 16 per cent, a three-year high. Rents have risen too. And the standard of living has dipped over the last decade, with a UN study showing that as much as 40 per cent of Egyptians earn less than $2 (less than Rs 100) per day.
On a rickety bench in the shadow of a mosque, a lone backpacker takes pictures. At the next table, two women nibble on little cakes and gossip over their shopping.
At night, a wrong turn will lead you away from the bustle and into the section where real business is conducted. There is no chatter and no foreign languages in the carpet market.
The traders are descendants of men who rode on camels across deserts to peddle their wares in foreign lands, or so they would have you believe.
The tea tastes different here. There are no showy lights. And no pyramids, Sphinxes or obelisks on the woven wares.
Just the most intricate patterns woven by hand in silk and wool. There is no bargaining. They know what their goods are worth and they don't mind if you head back into the din to pay less.
There is little crime in Cairo. And most of the violence would appear to take place at traffic junctions during rush hour.
On one of my first taxi rides, the usual row broke out over who would get the pre-ride tip. (Everything warrants a tip in Egypt, even the act of stepping off a kerb and hailing a taxi for someone who never asked you to).
The driver had neatly pocketed the money I was holding out and got behind the wheel. As the row intensified, the man who had hailed the cab leaned into the vehicle, stretched out his arm and slapped the driver smartly on the face.
The yelling did not falter for a second. Rather, the slap seemed to have settled the score and we finally got moving.
For a few metres. Seconds later, I looked up to find my driver leaping out of the vehicle, yelling at a traffic constable who seemed to be pouring all his energy into yelling systematically at the drivers of the each of the seven or so vehicles blocking the junction.
I opened my book and started to read. I knew eventually someone would slap someone and we’d all get moving again.