Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Last Ahmed of Cairo

Leaving Cairo, at the airport, I agreed to do something that I should have never agreed to do. Ahmed, this Ahmed, the last Ahmed of Cairo had been very kind thus far. How could I refuse?

This all happened because of the wrong information on my itinerary. When I showed up at terminal 3, I was brushed along by a few non-English speaking security officers to various places until I found the Egyptian Air customer service window. The man there who had a limited grasp of English told me I needed to go to the Seasonal Terminal. As he was explaining this to me, an Egyptian man came to the window with the same query.

In Arabic, the worker explained to this man where he needed to go and then the worker told me to follow the man. I did. The other terminal was some 500 meters away, which was a bit of a hike in the heat with baggage. The man told me a car would come pick us up and take us there.

Outside at the drop off spot, there were two men and two children – a girl and a boy - and one overloaded cart of luggage. The man introduced himself. This is another Ahmed, a good Ahmed - the last Ahmed of Cairo.

The last Ahmed of Cairo and the men talked and looked off into the distance for the mythical car as the children entertained themselves on the overloaded luggage cart. The boy pushed the girl around the sidewalk on the cart. Often he would push the cart within inches of the curb, which in turn made me wince quite a few times because I was certain the cart would go over the curb and the overweight luggage would crush the little girl.

“Is this the car?” I asked when an Egyptian Air van pulled up to the curb.

“No, soon the car will come.”

“Okay,” with that I looked with the men off into the distance to the East to see if I could spot this car that we were all waiting for as if the car was Godot. I asked the Last Ahmed of Cairo if the children were his children. No they belonged to his brother, who did not seem to realize he had any children while the children wildly wreaked havoc with a luggage cart overloaded with luggage. And I winced occasionally at the sight of this.

“This is car,” the Last Ahmed of Cairo pointed to a belching panting Fiat approaching that soon rattled to a halt. All of us piled in. One man in a thobe sat to my left in the backseat; the Last Ahmed of Cairo sat to my right. In the front seat, the children piled on top of their dad, who once we took off down the road seemed to finally recognize their lineage. The car sputtered and kicked its way like an ailing camel over to the Seasonal Terminal. Honestly, I was not sure the car would make it some 500 meters.

But the car did make it. Once there, the Last Ahmed of Cairo went to make sure we were at the right place. His brother and the two children followed. I was left standing with the men in thobes. I smiled at them awkwardly, oh these Woody Allen moments. After several minutes, the Last Ahmed of Cairo returned. We loaded the luggage on another cart and headed for the terminal. At the door of the terminal, the Last Ahmed of Cairo gave his brother and the children a teary farewell.

Since his flight was an hour earlier than mine, at ticketing he would try to get me on his flight - once we got through the initial security. However once we got to ticketing, I was fairly certain that no special treatment was going to be forthcoming because a few agents were trying to serve a few hundred passengers. This is when the Last Ahmed of Cairo asked me the Locked up Abroad question.

“You do not have much luggage. Could you check one of my bags?”

And before I even thought about it, I said, “Okay.”

I know. I know. Who in their right mind would say yes? Why I said yes, I don’t know. This is what I was thinking. It would have been a very odd coincidence that he showed at the customer service window at the same time as me if he had a bomb. At the time, I assumed if he had anything it would be a bomb. I suppose I was still in revolution mode. I did not even stop to think that he might have had several kilos of hash that he was smuggling into the Kingdom.

Now everything seemed very suspicious – the teary goodbye, the men in thobes, the tank liquids splashing around in the trunk of the Fiat, the weird chemicals in milk crates in the Fiat, the Fiat. The fact that our flights were leaving at two different times was the most suspicious. After I thought about it, I tried to tell him what he wanted me to do was against the law but he did not understand what I was trying to say. Maybe this was a ploy. Maybe he understood English perfectly. Maybe in his spare time he spoke with the flair and intellect of Tony Blair.

In the throng of people, we were not moving. The lines had ground to a halt. Actually, there was nothing as civilized as a line but just a mob of people gathered together. Each person in line at the ticketing counter seemed to have several people and several bags with them. This took a minimum of ten minutes a customer. On top of that, the luggage conveyor did not work. The luggage had to be hauled over to an overworked bag handler by the customer once the customer had checked in.

Another ticketing agent arrived. We hurried to his counter. We were near the front. The Last Ahmed of Cairo kept looking at his watch. It was now an hour until take-off for his flight. He overheard someone say that the line we were in was just for the passengers on his flight. This meant I would have to brave the mob again to wait to check in for my flight.

We got to the counter and the Last Ahmed of Cairo checked in and checked his bag. They told him it was overweight but let it slide. He told me to go wait in line and he would be right there after he had given his overweight bag to the bag handler.

I made my way through the throng of people that had grown exponentially. Making my way through the crowd was maddening. I now had in custody one bag that I had no idea what was contained therein. Was it hash? Was it explosives? Was it a tea set? What could be in it?

Once I got in line, I looked to see if I could spot the Last Ahmed of Cairo. He had disappeared. There was only one exit and I was closely watching to make sure he did not give me the slip. But then if it was in fact a bomb, he could have just headed to a distant part of the airport and he would be safe. At this point, I thought of speaking to an airport security officer about this. But then I thought, their English is, for the most part, non-existent so how would I get my point across without implicating myself in the process?

While I procrastinated and waited for the Last Ahmed of Cairo, I thought about my time in Cairo. If there was in fact a bomb that was about to explode, I had had a great time in Cairo and I had had a pretty nice life for the most part. After being bamboozled twice, on my third try I got to see the pyramids and ride a camel around them.

This is how it went down. I was looking for something to do my last full day in Cairo. I was trying to not be down about not seeing the pyramids but then I thought:

“Why not? I will give it one more shot.”

So I took the metro out to Giza and decided I would take a taxi from there. Right when I walked out of the metro station, a man asked where I was going. I told him the pyramids. He told me he is a taxi and he would take me. I asked him how much. He told me twenty Egyptian pounds. I agreed but then I told him that he better not trick me. I wanted to see the pyramids not his uncle’s perfume shop and not his aunt’s papyrus museum.

“No tricks,” I told him. “I will be angry and I won’t pay you if you trick me.”

He probably did not understand but he gave me a faint sign of agreement. We got in his car, which had the remains of a bumper in the backseat, and we drove. He told me after we went to the pyramids he would like for me to come to his home which was right by the station to have dinner. I did not agree to anything.

After ten minutes or so, the pyramids were in sight. We exited from the highway and took a rode crowded with mule carts and tuk tuks. After a few minutes, we turned left into an alley. He had been on the phone. At this point, I was thinking of how I would get away if he were taking me to some remote place to rob me. I had visions of many accomplices helping with this crime. Many of them, in my mind, looked like Hassan Mohammad who by now had certainly slaughtered his camel for the holiday.

But then there it was a stable of camels and horses by a wall, the pyramids on the other side. The stable owner invited me inside for tea. I told him I just wanted to see the pyramids. How much for a camel and a guide?

He quoted me one priced. I quoted another.

“Oh you know way of Egypt,” he said and quoted another price. Finally we agreed on 200 Egyptian pounds for an hour trek on a camel with a guide around three of the pyramids and the sphinx.

I got on the camel and was still surprised by the bulk of the beast when he rose. The guide led the camel into the walled area and then he had the camel sit again so that he could get on the camel. He got on the camel and we rode along the ruins of the pyramids. There were many discarded shoes, most of them made of canvas, along the way.

When we had ridden for twenty minutes we were at a place with a view of the pyramids. The guide had the camel sit and we dismounted. I took some photos and then the guide took some photos of me using my camera. We started to get back on the camel and ride but then he stopped me because a dirty old desert man appeared on a donkey. Out of the donkey’s saddle bags, the dirty old desert man - wearing a thobe that looked as if in its former life had been a mechanics grease rag – pulled out two bottles, Pepsi and 7-Up. There we stood viewing the pyramids – me completely awestruck - drinking a Pepsi and a 7-Up.

Then a man came by selling cheap keffiyehs. This man was as dirty as the first donkey rider. Really, it was not that hot but I decided I would buy one if it were cheap enough since they did look cheaply made. I bought one for 5 pounds and He fashioned it on my head. We then rode onto the sphinx and surprisingly the sphinx is not as monolithic as I thought it might be. Maybe I caught it on a bad day.

At that point, the guide demanded money. I gave him 100 Egyptian pounds. Although we were not gone for an hour, I did not mind. We returned to the stable. The taxi driver invited me into have tea with the stable owner which at this point I knew was a ploy to fleece me since that is what happens. I told him I would love to but I had to meet a friend.

And right then, my phone rang and it was Scammer Park Ahmed who was the second person who had told me we would go to the pyramids but instead we wound up in a field with the man of the field, crazy man who in retrospect still gives me the creeps. I did not actually answer the phone but I put it on silent as I had been doing since he had been calling me relentlessly to try to pull another scam I am sure.

But I acted like I answered the phone.

“Yeah, I will be right there,” I said into a phone with no one on the other end. “I am leaving the pyramids right now. Yeah, I won’t be long.”

With that, I told the taxi driver, I had to get back to meet my friend. He offered to take me all the way into downtown. I told him the metro was fine. We pulled out of the back alley and back onto the crowded street still competing with the donkey carts and tuk tuks for room.

“Arabic, Arabic, Arabic, metro,” the driver yelled to a family walking along the road. The taxi driver, who I might dare to say his name was Ahmed, stopped the car and got out and pulled the bumper out of the backseat and put it in the trunk and the family piled in.

“I’m sorry. This is my brother and wife of my brother,” he told me when he got back in and put the car into gear.

“Yes, I’m sure it is,” I replied sarcastically.

But this is what happened, I knew he would try to fleece me for more money once we got to the metro. So I had to have a plan. I looked in my wallet to make sure I had the 20 Egyptian pounds –twenty there, twenty back. I did. I am always happy when I have small change because it makes every maneuver much easier. The taxi, unknowingly did me a favor, he let me out before he let out the family because I knew he did not want me to see them give him money.

“This is metro,” he said and pointed to a stairway up to the metro under an overpass that was obviously not where you would usually drop passengers.

This is what I did. I handed him the twenty, yelled thanks as I was opening the door and getting out of the car. As the car door slammed and I was running up the stairs, I could hear him try to fleece me out of more money!

So how was I to get out of my current plight? I had a plan. I would just tell the ticketing agent that the bag is not mine and that my friend wants me to check it for him. But, I had to hope that the agents English was good enough to understand what I was saying. While I was thinking about this, the last Ahmed of Cairo approached.

“I may not see you again,” he said. “I will take the bag.” With this, he took the bag and dashed off to check the bag with the agent we initially encountered.

As he dashed away, I looked at him and he really did not look like a terrorist or a drug smuggler. He looked like a man, an Egyptian, trying to get back to his job in Cairo.

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