I’ve been bogged down in research for our next travel destination, so the next post on ol’ Malcolm – aka Dr. Feelgood – will have to wait.
In the meantime, here’s a travel story from November, 1980.
There were signs all around the base blocks: It Is Strictly Forbidden to Climb the Pyramids.
It was also Strictly Forbidden to do a lot of things, but there were a lot of men in flowing white robes ready to offer young backpackers a variety of opportunities.
“HelloEnglish! HelloMister! YouWantToBuyCamelYouWantToBuyHorse?” The Sphinx, eternally mute and stately, had had to endure these men for centuries, but I was getting tired of them after five minutes.
In the end I spent six months in the Middle East without once getting on a camel. I regret that now.
But after paying a few Egyptian piastres to an unlicensed guide and crawling behind him through a narrow opening inside to marvel at how completely underwhelming the interior is – no brilliant heiroglyphics, dusty mummies, carved wooden chests, or gold-covered masks here – I’m glad I didn’t just leave to go back to my Cairo hostel.
I knew I had one chance in my life to do this.
The shadow was getting longer on the east side of the Pyramids as I looked both ways, placed both palms face down into the sandy grit covering the first block, hopped and swung my left leg around high to the left, and hoisted myself up.
Suddenly I felt exhilarated at the thought I was on my way to the top of one of the world’s most ancient free-standing structures, for centuries a magnet for travellers, grave-robbers, mystics, poets and archaeologists, the subject of endless speculation as to how they were built so many thousands of years ago, and until 1889 when the Eiffel Tower was completed, the tallest thing man had ever built.
I turned around to see a man in a dirty yellow robe waving his arms in the air as he yelled at me to get off the Pyramid.
Meeting him sort of half-way, I jumped down from the second block to the first.
Crouching low to be at eye level I said to him: Many people have climbed the Pyramids. I can see how people have carved their names in the blocks up there!
He didn’t understand me, or pretended not to, because he kept on waving his arms at me to get down on to the ground. It is forbidden to climb! It is forbidden to climb! he wailed.
Suddenly I remembered where I’d been over the previous five months and what I’d picked up on the way. A few hundred Italian Lira. Portuguese Escudos, Spanish Pesetas, Greek Drachma, French Francs, a few Swiss Franc centimes, German Pfennigs, Dutch Gilders – even Yugoslavian Dinars and Swedish Kroner - all sitting loose in one of the pockets of my canvas and leather day pack, the leftovers from a few months of waiting in train stations, checking out of youth hostels, museum entrance fees, ferry rides, buses, food stalls and more than a few bar bills.
It’s what you gathered without even trying in the days before we traded in all that colour and variety for the cold, antiseptic uniformity of the world’s most soulless currency, the euro.
I’d wanted to leave the coins in the youth hostel, but was wary of thieves, so I always carried them around with me.
Stuffing my hand in the bag and pulling out a fistful of coins, I took a few out and handed them to him.
He looked at me incredulously, then smiled.
“OK, English” he said, sweeping his hands as if to brush me away. “You go up now.”
Backsheesh. The eternal currency.
No points for guessing where we’re headed.