It was a hot, sweaty ride out from Cairo. The taxi wasn’t air-conditioned, not a comfortable proposition for passengers who didn’t know each other riding three abreast in the back seat. In addition to me, there was a graduate student from Cal-Tech and a retired gentleman from somewhere in Pennsylvania. The old guy had a cast on his left foot. I didn’t see how he was ever going to make the climb, even with the nine-iron he had brought along as a sort of walking stick. It was 450 feet up to the top; that would be a tough climb even for someone in the prime of life and with two good feet.
After about thirty minutes over a pot-hole strewn highway we arrived at our destination. The driver ground the taxi to a stop and turned around to face us. “Here we are, my friends,” he said, “the Great Pyramid of Khufu.”
My two companions and I struggled out of the back seat and stood on slightly numb legs to behold the last surviving Wonder of The World. It was indeed magnificent. I ran a quick recall of all the famous men of history who had stood where I stood and had enjoyed the same breath-taking view: Moses, Herodotus, Napoleon, Churchill, to name a few. It was humbling to be in their company, if only in a mental time-traveler way.
The taxi driver gave us the usual tourist spiel. “Gentlemen, this structure was ordered built by the Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu over four thousand years ago. Ten thousand slaves labored for ten years to complete it. He intended it for his royal tomb.”
He went on to describe the estimated number of limestone blocks of which the pyramid was built, the probable origin of the blocks, the various means by which they might have been brought to the site and leveraged into place. He went on for quite a while. The old man in the cast finally raised his hand.
“Can we get on with it, bud?” the old guy said, “it’s getting hotter than hell out here.”
The driver look irritated, but retained his affable demeanor; we hadn’t tipped him yet. “Yes, of course, my friend. There’s just the little matter of the license fee.”
License fee? Well, that was one way to put it. The three of us intended to climb the pyramid in broad daylight, something that’s been illegal in Egypt for decades. The so-called license fee was what we were going to pay to the armed guards to look the other way for the time it took us to ascend and descend the forbidden monument. The going rate was $250 per climber. Each of us reached in our pockets and came up with the required amount. The driver took our money and made the rounds of the stalwarts safeguarding history’s greatest relic.
I took the time to chat with the old guy in the cast. “Think you can make it up?” I ask, pointing to the cast on his left foot.
“I reckon so. I’ve always stayed in pretty good shape, eight rounds of golf every week. No golf cart, either. I’m old school.”
“That’s a pretty demanding exercise regimen; has to take a lot of time, too. You must be retired.”
“Indeed, I am.”
“What were you, a history professor or something?” I asked, trying to account for his apparent determination to climb a pile of limestone blocks as high as a fifty story building.
“Hell, no, I was an insurance salesman.”
I was trying to factor that in when the driver returned. “Your fees are all paid, my friends,” he said, “now listen carefully. Your climbing licenses are good for one-hour only. You must complete your adventure within that time. If you do not, I will not be responsible for what happens to you. And you must remember that this pyramid is the pride of all Egypt, the greatest monument of our ancient civilization. It is a holy place, a sacred place. Climb it you may, but treat it with respect. No graffiti or things like that. Understood?”
We all nodded our agreement, although I noticed our insurance salesman was grinning when he did so. Perhaps an old professional habit, I thought at the time, grin and grow rich.
We paid off the driver and started our climb. A crowd of Egyptians in kaftans and sandals gathered to watch the three crazy amreekiyeen defy the laws of both man and gravity just to scratch an item off their personal bucket lists. The grad student and I had little trouble scampering up the grade; the old guy huffed and wheezed as if every step would be his last. Good thing he brought that nine-iron as a walking stick, I thought, otherwise he’d never make it. We helped him as best we could.
Finally we reached the top, a flat area about ten feet square. I stood with my hands on my hips, surveying the spectacular view of the Sphinx and the skyline of Cairo. The grad student snapped picture after picture with a Leica.
But the old man had no interest in sightseeing. He tore off the false paper-mache cast on his foot, reached into his trousers pocket, and took out a golf ball. He teed up the ball on the flat limestone pinnacle and whacked it with the nine-iron. The ball sailed a good two hundred yards before falling into the desert sand. It was the damndest nine-iron shot I had ever seen. The old man danced around on both legs like a sailor dancing a jig.
“I did it!” he said, “I did it! Nobody at the club has ever made a shot like that, and from the top of an Egyptian pyramid no less!” He went on like that for at least ten minutes. So much for respecting the pride of all Egypt, I thought.
It took me forever to explain to the guards down below that I didn’t know who the guy was and that I wasn’t part of his sacrilegious plan. I don’t know if they believed me, but they not-so-reluctantly believed the extra $250 license fee I paid them. The old man was still laughing and carrying-on when the guards hauled him away to the hoosegow, another ugly American who should never have been given a passport in the first place.
This is why they hate us.