It's one thing to get up early. Before the dawn when the streets are quiet and the dampness that comes with the cool night leaves a sheen of dew on the macadam and the garbage that litters it. After a night of sirens, some distant gunfire, shouting (in Arabic), I might have been better off not sleeping at all. But somehow I managed a couple of hours in which I dreamed that I was driving my car down a steep cliff with no brakes. Go figure. When I woke up I was already running late for the driver who was to meet me in the lobby of my hotel for the drive to Abu Simbal where the famous temples carved out of stone are located.
Under normal circumstances, the 200 KM drive across the desert would be a no-sweat, garden variety tourist activity. But in today's climate in which the American consulate emailed me a warning about nationwide demonstrations taking place today all across Egypt and that Westerners had best watch their backs, the drive takes on a different luster altogether.
Inside the lobby, the driver, a small, thin dark man greets me, handing me a box lunch. He speaks almost no English and I wonder if he can smell me since water in the city of Aswan has been unavailable for 24 hours and I pretty much reek. He smiles anyway while leading me to the van parked outside on the curb.
I get in, and he drives, picking up some tourists along the way. Some Germans, a couple of Brits, and some Aussies. No Americans. We don't proceed to the highway. Instead we drive to a rallying point where dozens of other vans and buses are parked. Attending to the rides is an army of machine-gun toting soldiers. They examine the rides inside and out. The also check the undercarriages with a tool made from a long aluminum handle with a big round mirror attached to the end. He's checking for any explosive devices that just might go off during the ride.
It's early. I sip a Nescafe that was prepared for me roadside by a robed and turban-wearing old man. My stomach is rumbling from the lentil soup I should not have eaten the evening before with a Nubian family on an island surrounded by the Nile waters. I'm not in the best of moods and now I have to worry about getting my ass blown off on my way to seeing one of the most amazing archeological wonders of the world.
As we cross over the dam on our way to the desert, my mind drifts to the young woman who operates the small desk inside my hotel. She is a pleasantly attractive Muslim girl who wishes to go to New York one day. When I tell her I write thriller novels for a living she smiles and the smile becomes infectious. She asks me if I was afraid to come to Egypt. I tell her I wasn't afraid. That I'm more afraid of walking certain streets in my hometown at night. But that was before my van was to be searched for the bombs.
Many hours later, when I make it back to the hotel, exhausted, covered in sand and sweat, she smiles that smile. It draws me in so much that I find myself approaching the front desk instead of trudging up the stairs to my room.
"Wonderful," I say. "Thank you very much."
That's when she holds up her hand, makes a fist.
"Give me the rock," she says.
I raise up my right hand, make my own fist, touch hers.
We share a moment...a connection...a life far away from the possibility of bombs.