Yallah, Yallah!

I know you’ve been feverishly awaiting the camel story promised in Part 1 of our Egypt story, so here it goes:

Our next stop after the “First Egyptian Papyrus Museum” was actually in Giza, as promised. Though not exactly next to the pyramids. Rather, we found ourselves in a dodgy-looking back alley where Hassan, our driver, parked the car right next to the tethered camel.

Some guys, who I’m sure Hassan was somehow related to, emerged from the shadows and crowded around us, wanting to know did we want to see the pyramids via camel or horse or horse-drawn carriage?

This is the point where we should have listened to Zax, who has the uncanny ability to predict disaster. Whenever he doesn’t want to join the rest of our family on some outing and stays home instead, he is almost always vindicated by us having the worst day ever. Flat tire, terrible food, place closed – the harder it was that we tried to persuade Zax to come along with sugar-coated versions of fun and glory, the deeper the fall into misery.

But of course when it comes to travelling with our kids, common sense seems to fail us. Zax put up a stiff resistance, arguing – quite reasonably – that surely the best option to visit the pyramids was to just drive there in the car we already had with us, air-conditioned and smell-proof and paid for. But I wasn’t going to miss out on the camel, having come this far, if only for the family picture. Somehow over the years we’ve incorporated this camel routine into our annual Christmas cards, you see, and an actual photograph of our family on real camels is what I’ve been craving for many years. If you look at a sampling of those cards, you’ll perhaps understand why a real camel family picture was needed to keep the trend alive.

My camel fetish all started with Sunshine’s birth announcement
(“Will this be the one who breaks the camel’s back?”)
Henceforth our Christmas cards tended to feature camels


Our move to Kansas, drawn by Jabulani

Our move to South Africa, with drawings by all kids (including the Zax’s patched-up
camel that I had to rescue from the trash after he threw it there in a teenage fit).

So we voted down Zax, haggled some over the price, opting for camels only, excluding entrance fees (which we figured we’d pay later at the ticket booth). More Egyptian Pounds changed hands, and all that was left to do was to get on the camels and go.

Jabulani and Sunshine happy enough for the moment

Well. Sunshine and Jabulani mounted camel number one, which was easy enough. Then Noisette, who was going to share with Impatience, inexplicably chose this moment to find a restroom, leaving the rest of us standing around in the dust. This clearly was too much for the camels, who decided it was time to go. Camel number one got up, all three meters of it, in that way only camels can get up, leaving the novice rider totally confused and more than a bit panicky about where to hold onto and which way to lean. I half-expected a crisis from my two kids now hovering somewhere in the distance way above me, but they gave me a cheerful wave. Instead, Impatience started throwing a huge fit, screaming and running away. Just standing next to a camel that was getting up was enough for her. There was no way in hell, she said when I caught up with her and dragged her back, that she was getting on that thing.

If you scroll fast enough, you’ll see how
the camel is getting down. Reverse for up.
Except you never know which way it’s going
to go. Front legs or back legs first?

I should perhaps mention here that Impatience is a skilled rider. On horses. She’s been riding for several years and has handled pretty much everything her often wild horse, Sparky, has thrown at her, including bolting out of the arena and up an embankment at our last horse show.

It took a lot of coaxing and pleading to get Impatience on her camel once all of them were reassembled closer to the ground, and she felt compelled to scream every time her camel took so much as a step. Or breathed. Which made me a bit nervous, because several of our camels were tethered together, and I had visions of a dust-shrouded caravan of spooked camels running off into the desert, with or without riders.

The view from up top

I’m quite pleased (or chuffed, as a true South African would say) with these pictures,
considering I took them one-handed from a moving camel

We managed to make it just fine to our first stop. Which was still nowhere near the pyramids. Rather, some boys emerged and gestured to our kids to bow their heads so they could put Bedouiny-looking headdresses on them. Which seemed like a great idea until the boys held out their hands and wanted payment for the head dresses, which of course Noisette vetoed, having already bled our Egyptian-Pound kitty almost dry just paying for the camels. This is why you will see that only half of us are wearing proper head dresses in our camel pictures.

Finally arrived at the pyramids, Impatience couldn’t wait to get off her camel, and wasn’t to be budged to get back on, proceeding on foot henceforth. Zax and Noisette joined her, so that if you think about it we paid a bunch of money for the privilege of walking in front of some Arabs who were pulling camels. Not that we were done paying, mind you. Ticket booths, of course, are not something you will find at the Great Pyramids of Giza. Nor will you see a fence or an entrance or any kind of signage informing you that you are about to enter one of the World Wonders. Instead, the place is run by a bunch of guys much like the guys leading our camels, and some more guys loitering about at the entrance of each pyramid. If you want to enter, you have to pay. How much that is probably depends on the mood of the guy sitting there that day, and his assessment of your financial prowess. I was reminded of my beloved Joburg street vendors, and yet I can’t quite comprehend that the Egyptian government has been sitting on this greatest of treasures for decades and has done absolutely nothing with it. No wonder the people of Egypt have had enough of their government.

Inside one of the pyramids, I have no idea which one. But we were told they were all the
same size inside, so we opted for the cheapest one, not the one of the great Cheops.

This is as much as we could find in terms of any background information. The non-
hieroglyphic kind of information, that is.

There is nothing to do but bite your tongue and pay the price, if you want to see the mysteries inside the great pyramids. And they will remain mysteries forever, because once again there are no signs on the inside explaining anything. If you’re not quite fluent in hieroglyphics from around 7000 years ago, you won’t really get the story. Your best option is to trust whatever story Mahmoud and Abdul are dishing up to you in bad English about the adventures of the great king Cheops and his wives, but I have my doubts.

I think we’d be wandering around Giza still, being coaxed into yet another burial chamber not very different from the last, if we hadn’t completely run out of money, and if the kids hadn’t rebelled and refused to take another step, with our without camel. One was still crying inconsolably every time a camel so much as looked at her. Another kept telling me that we should never have had this stupid idea of coming here and that tomorrow he wouldn’t step out of the hotel at all because we weren’t trustworthy parents, and the third now had a big headache and looked like she was going to throw up any second. And of course when you just once in your life actually wish for a gift shop to distract whiny girls, there is none in sight. Why bother with the gift shop, they were probably thinking, when we can make the tourists hand over the money directly just by sitting in front of a pyramid?

Wandering around and posing on the pyramids. I was surprised how rough they look from
close up. They look so nice and smooth from a distance!

Only Jabulani was his chipper self in the face of a sporty outdoors adventure (in fairness it must be said that he’d had his own meltdown at the hotel that morning over when and where to eat breakfast). So it was decided that the walkers would amble on over to the Sphinx (our guides kept calling it Sphiniks) and find what little shade they could, while Jabulani and I would be taken for a little spin through the desert for a panorama view.

Thus liberated by all the whiny stragglers, Mahmoud, our guide of the moment, and Abdul, the boy, felt compelled to turn up the speed a notch. Mahmoud, on a horse, would ride up behind my camel, whack it in the knees, and yell yallah yallah! And off we trotted up and down the dunes. If the camels made any sign of slowing down, they’d get whacked again, and the speed would be turned up another notch with something that sounded like harrakah!

Everything was worth it for this view

The adventurers in our family

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a trotting camel. But let me just tell you that it is a bouncy affair. If  you’re ever planning to do it yourself, take a minute beforehand and think what you will do with your Canon SLR camera dangling from your neck. Because not only will you be bouncing up and down, your camera will bounce right along with you, right onto your – how shall I put this politely – pubic area. There was no way to hold it still because both my hands were holding on to that little – far too little – knob in front of me for dear life. There we were all in a frenzy, racing through the desert, yelling yallah, yallah at the top of our lungs, when what I really would have wanted to learn in Arabic is the word for stop. Just as I saw myself being flung down right over the camel’s neck on a particularly steep downhill run, the camels, being rather lazy, thankfully slowed down, giving me a chance to rearrange my body parts and accessories. Until Mahmoud caught up again and laid it on with his whip once more. I was only saved by somehow squeezing my legs tight on that scratchy camel blanket while gripping that joystick as if in a particularly challenging session of Mario Kart.

Camel thighs

I got right up close to the Sphinx for a private word (about whiny kids, if you must know)

But whatever bruises I came away with – trust me, there were many – were worth it, because the entire way I kept thinking about what kind of whining poor Noisette must be enduring over at the Sphinx that very moment. And I’m very happy to have learned such a great new word such as yallah yallah – I’ve been using it on my kids ever since to prod them along, not so much onto sand dunes but out of the house on their way to school.

In the retelling afterwards, Jabulani asked if I had seen the obese American lady led by another guide some distance away. “The one that was screaming all the way?” I asked. “Yes,” said Jabulani. “But she was only screaming all the way down the hill. The camel was the one screaming all the way up the hill.”

Stay tuned for more family adventures in Egypt. Because what can be even more challenging than a camel ride with kids?

A snorkeling trip with kids.