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Chapter 21

Flying Coffins in Cairo

Just for fun, I looked up the rate of exchange between the Egyptian Pound and the US Dollar. Today the official rate is 5.899£E for one good old American Dollar. In 1984, the rate was 0.88£E for one dollar. That was the official rate at the bank, the only place one could legally exchange money. However, there was one bank, The East Bank of The Nile, where one could get a much better rate of exchange, 1.35£E for a dollar. Usually a one man operation which kept overhead down. Since one never changed less than a hundred dollars, you can see the difference between 88 and 135 soon added up. Now think thousand. In case you have not figured it out, it was black market, frowned upon by both the Egyptian and American Governments.

One day I had occasion to visit the "bank." I needed a thousand dollars changed in to pounds. The bank was located in a small candy store operated by a very nice lady. I entered the store, went through the usual formalities of haggling about the price and reached an agreement. She pulled out a stack of "camel blankets" - the large twenty pound notes. We called them camel blankets because they smelled like something one would use on a camel. I told her I preferred the new notes similar in size to our dollars. With that, she summoned her seven or eight year old daughter and her friend, gave her my thousand dollars and sent them out the door. Nervous, I was shaking. Here was a kid running down the street with my hard earned per diem. I had done business with this lady before and felt I would be all right. I could take the camel blankets if push came to shove.

We waited, and waited. The lady and I stepped out on the sidewalk, looked down the street to see her daughter on the balcony of a building a block away. She was waving at us and the lady assured me everything would be fine. Sure enough, pretty soon the young lady came skipping up the street, grinning like a possum. Her mother spoke to her in Arabic, the little girl giggled. With that the mother lifted her long dress, reached in her panties and gave me 1350£E in new notes.

My friends Don, Chubby and Sonny persuaded me to move in to an apartment with them. It was a chance to save a little money and I was bored with the view of all the airline stewardesses lounging around the pool in skimpy bikinis, the pool boy who had two bottles of my favorite beverage iced down when I returned from work, the maid who took care of my laundry and the twenty-four hour room service from a five star restaurant. I must have been out of my gourd! I wound up doing the shopping and cooking for these fellows, not an easy task but educational.
Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen Mask
Tutankhamen's Mask

Soon after I moved in, one of them announced a new exhibit at Giza. The antiquities department had discovered a boat that had been buried next to the Great Pyramid and had restored it. We had been to the pyramids so many times we could have conducted tours but this was something new. Plans were made and early on a Friday morning we set out. At first we thought about taking a taxi but we had never ridden the streetcar from our apartment to Ramses Square and the main railroad station. It cost a whole five piaster compared to five pounds in a taxi. Ever frugal we opted for the streetcar.

I had loaned Don two hundred dollars which he put in a small wallet and placed that in the hand warmer pocket of his windbreaker. We had been warned about flashing money in public but Don must have forgotten because while we waited for the car, he removed the wallet, checked the contents and put it back in the pocket. We boarded the crowded car, standing in the middle aisle holding on to straps. I looked at Don who was standing face to face with a beautiful girl who was smiling at him and making suggestive movements with her hips. I thought that was pretty strange, very unusual to see an Egyptian lady acting like that. Before we reached the station, the lady left the car with a wave to Don who still wore the silly grin. When we stepped out on the platform, Don started cussing. The gal had picked his pocket! I didn't know it then but it was an omen of worse things to come.

Several modes of transportation in Cairo. The Limo, usually a large Mercedes driven by a uniformed driver. Moderate to expensive with set rates, usually between hotels. The black and white taxi, rates are negotiable. Still taking your life in your own hands with some of them. The most dangerous, the white Flying Coffin Station Wagons. Operated by Dervishes on hashish or worse. For some reason, and we knew better, we hired a Coffin for three pounds to take us the rest of the way to the pyramids. I was seated in front and from the beginning suggested to the driver to slow down, we were not in a hurry. His eyes were glazed and he paid me no mind. We almost made it. We were on the large boulevard just a mile from the pyramids when I saw a city bus making a U-turn in front of us. I swear, our driver pushed the accelerator all the way to the floor. The bus could not complete his turn without backing up and he did just as we arrived. We hit with such force that the engine came through the firewall, the windshield popped out and flew back over the top of the car along with the hood. Everything was in slow motion, or so it seemed. Sonny and Don had braced themselves by placing their knees against the back rest of the front seats. At impact, I was slammed against the dash still hooked in my seat belt. When we stopped, Sonny jumped out, opened my door to help me out. At the time, I didn't feel any broken bones or sprains except for the pain of the belt across my chest.
visitors at the Cairo Museum
Museum Visitors Admiring Tutankhamen
We checked each other out and while we were standing there the driver of the coffin was gathering the scattered parts and arguing with the bus driver. We decided to walk the rest of the way and started to leave. The taxi driver noticed and started hounding me for three pounds. I was ready to cut his tongue out when a black and white taxi pulled up and offered us a ride. We had had enough of taxis for the time being and told him no thanks. He insisted, said it was free and that we didn't want to be here when the police came. That rung a bell. He took us to the Giza Holiday Inn where we downed several drinks in short order. He was still outside when we were ready to leave and he took us to the pyramids. I gave him five pounds.

We managed to get inside the boat exhibit, took some pictures and ran in to one of our company drivers, Hosam. Soon after, the Khamaseen hit.. a monster sand storm. Hosam explained the reason they called it by that name, fifty in Arabic. The storms usually lasted fifty days. Meeting Hosam was the best luck we had all day. He delivered us safely back to our apartment where we fought sand for the next week. It was still so bad on Sunday that work was suspended at the air base. What a blessing when it finally blew out. We had even found it difficult to breath in our apartment.

I took these photos at the Cairo Museum. Probably one of the most recognizable works of art in the world. I made many visits and always seemed to see things in a different light.

Froggy at the Cairo Museum
The Photographer at the Cairo Museum

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