Rolf Potts travels around
the world with no luggage

Embracing my inner tourist at Giza

September 8, 2010 by Rolf Potts

Ten years ago, when I first visited Egypt, I had a hang-up about visiting the legendary Pyramids at Giza. At the heart of this hang-up was the dull fear of disappointment — a creeping worry that the most iconic monument in the world would be so overrun by tourists and kitsch vendors that I wouldn’t truly appreciate it. I eventually found my courage and made my pilgrimage to Giza (though my one-week spate of creative Pyramid-procrastination in the streets of Cairo was so revealing that it took up an entire chapter of my book Marco Polo Didn’t Go There).

My only regret in that original visit to Giza is that I was so self-conscious about the kitsch-factor at the Pyramids that I neglected to properly appreciate it. This site has, after all, been a locus of tourist fascination for at least 3200 years (the oldest recorded tourist graffiti at the Pyramids, dated to 1244 BC, reads: “Hadnakhte, scribe of the treasury, came to make an excursion and amuse himself on the west of the Memphis, together with his brother, Panakhti”). By the time Herodotus visited the Pyramids in 450 BC, the touts, guides, and vendors of Giza had been making a living catering to the whims and credulities of tourists for nearly twenty generations (which could account for some of the dubious Egypt data in the Greek writer’s Histories).

One of the more colorful accounts of Pyramid tourism in the 19th century came from Mark Twain, who was simultaneously impressed by the sights at Giza, and irritated by the hordes of would-be guides and souvenir salesmen. “We suffered torture no pen can describe from the hungry appeals for bucksheesh [tips] that gleamed from Arab eyes and poured incessantly from Arab lips,” Twain wrote in The Innocents Abroad. “Why try to call up the traditions of vanished Egyptian grandeur; why try to fancy Egypt following dead Rameses to his tomb in the Pyramid, or the long multitude of Israel departing over the desert yonder? Why try to think at all? The thing was impossible.” (Twain’s ultimate solution was to pay one tout to fight off all the other touts while he made his way around the site.)

Since the tourist scene at Giza has a history almost as lengthy and storied as the Pyramids themselves, I wanted to focus my latest visit on the very touts and vendors I’d tried to ignore ten years before. One of the clich├ęs of travel writing is the tendency to ignore all the present-day annoyances (including other the tourists) that surround sites of ancient grandeur. This in mind, I hoped to engineer a visit that focused less on the Pyramids than the chaotic human interactions that surround them.

Given the fact that (with the help of my cameraman Justin) I was shooting this experience for video, my Giza visit quickly devolved into good-natured absurdity. Whereas my travel-reflexes are typically honed to ignore the trinket-vendors and freelance guides that surround a given tourist site, this time I was actually seeking to interact with them. Since it’s impossible to have a normal conversation with a tout (who by definition wants only to talk you into using his services), this led to a series of spirited-yet-pointless interactions outside the Sphinx-side admission gate.

Eventually, over the course of one morning, I racked up: a) one mediocre desert horse excursion (which was spearheaded by a pot-bellied Egyptian named Nasser, who seemed disproportionately concerned that I might need help buying souvenirs after the ride); b) nearly a dozen visits to papyrus shops and handicraft stores (I have no room for souvenirs, but Justin got some goodies for his wife); c) one denial of admission at the Sphinx gate (due to the presence of the video camera); d) one successful admission at the main gate (once we’d hidden the microphone to make the camera look less official); and e) one camel ride from the most spectacularly persuasive and devious tout I’ve met in all my years of travel (he basically invited me to sit on the camel for one photo, then didn’t let me down for the next half hour).

This all made for a gloriously unoriginal experience at Giza — which, on this day at least, was exactly what I was looking for.

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  • Hey guys,

    I just discovered your blog, so I'm catching up on posts..

    I always take to much stuff when I go backpacking and this blog is an inspiration!
    I visited the piramids a few years ago, and I love the way this video captures the same feeling I had when I visited Giza... you picture these grand piramides in the middle of the dessert, while in reality they're getting swallowed by the city almost. Great video!

  • The beg of this video is absolutely epic.. I love it. Perfect combination of humor and reality. Ive been trying to find a good program for video editing do you guys use professional software? mac or windows?

  • I use Final Cut on a MacBook Pro.

  • Jamiebradish

    I have to say as well, Justin, that the barber shop video is brilliant too--love-love-love it! And here I thought you were just a good writer (I read your schtuff on Vagabonding)! Oh, and happy anniversary to you and your wife!

  • Thanks Jamie!

  • I heart this.

  • Jamiebradish

    Brilliant video, guys!

  • Thanks Jamie!

  • That was HILARIOUS and yet eye opening as well! I loved seeing the true tourism of the Pyramids. I honestly had no idea it was like that there and had never been told so. Good to know, because I do plan to be one of those tourists on a camel someday.

  • Sharon Miro

    The last frames made me laugh- a lot. Thanks for the spirited update.

  • Hey Rolf,
    Love your books Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn't Go There.

    Heard that you'd be dropping by Singapore on your "No Baggage Challenge".

    Wanna meetup for some coffee and a short chat when you're here?
    I'll show you around the place, if you've got a few hours to spare.

    Best Wishes and Happy Travels,

    Ziqi
    http://lettersfromtheporch.wor...

  • Melaniedries

    Rolf, I am being vicariously prepped for my round-the-world journey! Even though I'll be volunteer working at various places, I'll still be a tourist. It's really fun to see and hear you on these videos! Keep at it, mate!

  • Adriano Galeno

    Nice video... thanks for sharing this wonderful experience.

  • yep - this was the best yet - and all the posts have been great. Thanks for being such great sports about being tourists like everyone else! ha ha! I get it - I was just at the Great Wall 2 weeks ago... :)

  • Justin that was some hilarious editing! Great commentary Rolf! :D
    Sometimes you just have to accept your fate and give in to your inner tourist. I can't imagine how one would have an "authentic" experience at the pyramids or if such a concept could possibly exist after thousands of years of touts...

  • Thanks Benny! But it's definitely a collaborative process, so don't leave Rolf out of your thanks. ;)

  • Jwl

    Great blog Rolf. I feel I'm traveling with you without the hardship. You have reported the upside of the jacket. What's the downside?

  • Michael Rasmussen

    Yay! Fun!
    Justin, you keep doing better and better.

  • Great update again guys, keep it up!

  • Victoria

    That was HILARIOUS! I love the "Sphynx!!" kid! I haven't been to Egypt but have felt that experience of being the obvious tourist in other countries I have visited. Even certain places in the US. lol

    Thanks for the laughs and great video!

  • Keith

    You know you could actually ship any souvenirs you might pick up home.

  • GypsyTraveller3

    LOL :) It was just as funny the second time! (yes, just couldn't help watching it twice)

  • ok justin that was good stuff, i really do enjoy how you put it all together in away that fun and enlightening at the same time.

  • Thanks Steve!

  • Patrick

    Ahhh, Cairo. Too many memories, thanks for the deluge!

  • Jaq

    Justin- You may have answered this elsewhere, but where are you getting this great music? Did you pick it out ahead of time, or are you surfing for it on the go? Also, I hate to ask this, but are you licensing the music or getting permission? Curious as a soon to be blogger.... thx!

  • Hey Jaq, yeah, it's licensed with permission. Thanks for watching!

  • Alex

    How do the Blundstone Boots perform in the heat? are they not to warm? What model do you have? I was looking them up on-line, I saw lots of bads reviews on the 510 model, which is the lightest.....

  • Oh, your experience with the camel ride made me laugh and brought back fond memories of our visit to Cairo At that time we heard the story (legend) of the tourist who was quite pleased with himself on the price he had negotiated for a felucca ride on the Nile, only to be told in the middle of the Nile that he would need to negotiate again the ride back to shore. I too had a "bad" experience at the Sphinx gate. It was toward the end of our stay and I had felt pretty good about being able to handle all the touts up to that point. I just wanted to see the Sphynx close up but they would not let me alone, even to starting their whole spiel in German if I did not answer their English. I was tired and I just wished I had a sign around my neck saying "This tourist is not carrying any money, leave her alone" . I'm glad you found a way to enter into the spirit of this kind of travel. I will certainly be thinking of you the next time we travel. Bon voyage!

  • I knew a camel would show up sooner or later.

  • Tim

    That was a sweet update guys. Keep them coming. I'm love that you aren't doing the same style of update over and over. It's so easy to fall into that trap. I've taken the trips to the Rocky Mountains, the Smokey Mountains and other hiking/camping spots and had to come to the realization that I am in fact a tourist despite wanting to be either Lewis or Clark. With that realization I started earlier this year to head out on some mini explorations of my own city and some of the parks. I havent' kept up with it but some photos can be seen at http://WherePhoto.com I had planned on putting up new photos every day but my own life took a bit of a turn and the project had to take a back seat for a while. I'm hoping to start it back up soon.

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