It was a twelve hour flight from Chicago to Cairo. Meryl was single, and lived a fairly simple life or so I thought. Until she snuck in last minute details of an adult son, a marriage that survived less than a year, and the recent passing of both parents. She’d always wanted to experience the pyramids, even when her best friend, Katya, wasn’t able to come. Neither of us slept much on the overnight flight. By the time we waited for the shuttle van to the Amangani Hotel, I was practically holding her up.
The following morning I was on my patio before dawn, watching the Egyptian sunrise, listening to peacocks and other rare birds. I grabbed a light jacket to ward off the desert chill. My porter had informed me that my room included a view of the Great Pyramid. I could barely make it out, past the palms on the hotel grounds, breathing in the distance. But despite fatigue, I felt excited to tour there this morning.
Meryl joined me for breakfast, a typically American style buffet. Our conversation included Queen Hatshepsut whom Meryl dubbed “Queen Hat Cheap Suit.” We would visit her temple in the Valley of the Kings on Wednesday.
I found it strange as we boarded a tour bus to drive the 100 yards up the hill to visit the Great Pyramid. I told Meryl, “I’d always imagined them to be someplace further out into the desert.”
“I know what you mean. I thought we’d have to drive halfway to Luxor,” Meryl said. Our tour would also stop there. Meryl leaned out into the bus aisle, then closer toward me. “Hey, Dean, did you happen to see that guard when we boarded?”
My head stretched above the others. “No, I can only see his hat.”
“Well, he carries an ouzi.”
“Great!” Another traveler had asked simple security questions during our initial meeting with Rick, our Egyptian tour guide. Rick attempted to disarm us with smiling reassurances, including Egypt’s favorable attitude about tourists. Still there were murmurs. I had avoided watching CNN, or reading any news magazine for the month before the trip. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.
The bus switch-backed its way up the hill, past street vendors, camels, walking tourists. I couldn’t stop scanning for our guard on the bus front steps, carrying that ouzi. Would we pass by him to exit the bus? Or would he simply vanish? He looked dangerous, wearing a military uniform, that huge weapon strapped over his shoulder. I tried to imagine what he looked like without any of that décor.
As we disembarked, he stood at the side with the driver and Rick. Several people decided to ride camels, I declined. They smelled worse than the Bangkok fish market, with the local durian fruit that I'd choked down to please the Thai guide. Instead, I decided to take the plunge, into the Great Pyramid. Meryl was determined to get her “photo op” as she called it, riding Old Stinky.
“I’ll meet you back on the bus,” she said.
But she didn’t. I toured the Pyramids. Oddly, they seemed so much smaller in person. And then, The Sphinx; what a magnificent monument, combining the lion’s body with a human head. Our tour bus moved, parked in a busy lot at the bottom of the hill. I was dripping from the heat and had drunk a lot of water, so I located the rest rooms. When I came out, Meryl was heading in.
“How was the camel ride?”
“Hey Dean, it was great. You shoulda’ come. But I’m about to pee my pants. I’ll tell you all about it on the bus.”
I thought about waiting. I did. But figures were melting in the 100 degree heat. The bus filled with weary tourists all talking about their two hours of pictures and poses. Ten minutes slipped past our pre-arranged meeting time. Another man, Tim, was late. Forgot the announcement about the new bus location. Twenty minutes, now I was worried. Meryl was nowhere in sight.
“Has anyone seen her?” Rick asked.
“I did.” I mentioned seeing her at the bathrooms.
My gosh, there are eighteen million people in Cairo.
“This is ridiculous,” the man across the aisle said.
“Meryl might be lost,” I offered, fearing the worst.
I looked at my watch; a half hour had passed. Rick paced outside the bus. The guard with the ouzi was gone. I retraced our conversation from the plane, remembered she had a son in Chicago, what was his name? What would it be like to tell him his mother had simply disappeared into thin air?
Suddenly, I saw someone round the corner of the bus. It was Meryl! She got on, her face deep from the sun. As she sat down, I noticed tear tracks stained her cheeks. I searched my pockets for a handkerchief and handed it to her.
We waited, as Rick walked the aisle, took a last count. “What happened?” I whispered.
“I got so caught up in seeing everything, when I came out of the bathroom, I got totally turned around. I headed back up to the top parking lot. Then panicked when I didn’t see our bus there. They all look alike, so I went from bus to bus. There must have been fifty of them. I was petrified. I thought you’d left me behind.”
“Thank goodness you found us.”
“Oh, I didn’t. That man with the ouzi saved me.” Meryl tilted her head against the seat, closed her eyes. “I’ll never forget this day.”
published 27 August 2011