The True Story of Me and Rambo, Headman of the Sphynx
© Copyright 2018 by Paul Waddington
A number of years ago I went on a round the world trip. After spending a very civilized few days in Vienna, my first stop, a place so clean, that the streets define the word, I arrived into the utter chaos that is Cairo on the next stage of my journey. To say that it was a jolt to the system after the tranquil elegance of Austria was an understatement.
My first inkling that Egypt would be ‘different’ was clocking the stray mangy dogs wandering around the tarmac of the runway as we landed in Cairo. I had been warned by my flat mate at the time that I should be careful in Cairo, and that it was a madhouse. To this end I had forked out a small fortune to stay in a Five Star Hotel, my thinking being that I would be relatively safe in a plush hotel overlooking the Pyramids. So after fighting my way through the avalanche of touts, weirdos and dodgy looking blokes at the entrance of the airport I found my pre-booked taxi. Vehicles in Cairo have all undergone a modification. This involves linking the accelerator and brakes directly to the horn. The car weaved in and out and around all obstacles getting in the way, of which there were many. The streets of Cairo showed poverty in a sharp relief….men with no legs dragged themselves along the gutters on their bare hands and worse. Locals were calm and relaxed walking through the throngs of carts, horses, wandering deranged dogs, cars, dilapidated vans, hot fumes, dust and shrieking mayhem. After an hour of a drive that tested my tolerance of apparent imminent death, I arrived at the oasis of tranquilly that was the hotel.
My plan was to visit the Sphynx and the main pyramid complex….but safely. Main reception had a front desk of marble about a mile long and a Hertz Car and Taxi booking point at the end. There was even a little waterfall behind the front desk….nice touch. What could be better? A nice reputable Western company to book my journey with…I could leave the dodgy taxi drivers of Cairo at home. Job done.
Next morning, I was sat, sunk into a deep soft leather chair in reception, at the agreed pick up time of 9am., enjoying the air conditioning. A man with thick black hair, and a moustache so dense that it would put Tom Selleck to shame, wandered up to me. “You Mr Paul?” he drawled in a thick Middle Eastern accent. I confirmed that I was indeed “Mr Paul.” “Tour booked. Today.” He announced, “For you. I from Hertz. You come now Mr Paul.” It was going to be a great day. I had requested a drive up to the Pyramids, whereby I would then get out and explore. The taxi would wait for me. After this the booking was to drive round to the Sphynx, explore and then back to the hotel. That was the plan I had booked at the desk. What could go wrong? We left the hotel in the Hertz car…after a few minutes I began to wonder where we were going….why were the Pyramids drifting off into the distance behind us?...I reasoned that he was taking me a way that would present them to me from their greatest advantage…a nice scenic route. This conclusion was soon shown to be a wrong one. We drew up outside a row of flat roofed huts, down an alleyway. As if by some form of magical osmosis tiny children in rags and old people with walking sticks, teeth gapped smiles, and dry crisped wrinkled skin appeared from nowhere and surrounded the car. They banged the windows and doors, from every side, peering at me as if I was some form of creature from another world. I guess at that moment I was to them. The faces were right up against the glass, hands expectantly tapping the windows. “These good people,” came the announcement from the drivers seat. “They give you best camel ride in whole of Egypt!” Keeping my cool, I stated firmly that I did not want the best camel ride in the whole of Egypt. I had no idea what this growing crowd would do to me if I got out of the car. I stated in no uncertain terms that he should take me to the Pyramids. Now. We left a sea of disappointed faces in the distance.
On reflection I should have asked to go back to the hotel. I did not. Higher levels of craziness and danger lay ahead. We drew up at one of the Seven Wonders of The World. This was it. I had made to the Pyramids! I looked out from the car. Where was the Welcome Complex? The Visitor Centre? This was after all pretty much the most famous place on the planet. I got out of the car. The driver told me I had to pay the ‘Admission Fee’. He pointed to a lonely looking tiny hut in the middle of the carpark in the distance. No Visitor Complex. A hut. Walking up to it, I peered through a hole with four rusty bars into the shadowy innards. Inside was a man who was a dead ringer for Osama Bin Laden. He took some money off me, kindly gave me a green ticket, and waved me in the general direction of the Pyramids. I confirmed with the driver that he would wait for me. It was still fairly early. The tourist coaches had yet to arrive. I pretty much had the place to myself. I walked up to the giant Pyramid of Khufu.
The blocks of stone making up the thing are massive. Three or four blocks up was a group of men smoking heavily and playing cards, next to what looked like the entrance into the pyramid. Climbing up, I got out my little green ticket Osama had given me and showed it, with some little hope, to the guys and pointed at the entrance. “No good my friend! No good here!...this is magic happening place! Special price for you my friend!! You go in half price!” I coughed up the readies the guys were after. I was given a tiny purple ticket, and they gestured lazily for me to go in…to be honest they looked like they wanted to get back to playing cards, to see which one of them could now win my money off the other.
So I entered the Pyramid. Alone. A long wooden staircase was visible in some dim lighting. It stretched up and into the distance and darkness. I climbed up into the pyramid, pretty sure I was only person on Earth inside. I heard and saw no-one else. After about half an hour climbing, I bent down and entered into the tomb. I looked at the empty black marble casket in the middle of room, in the half light. The walls were also black marble blocks…cut with laser precision. I ran my fingers over the walls. I was unable to feels the gaps or joins between the blocks. At waist height was a small hole one in one of the walls…peering up this hole at 45 degrees I could see the blinding light of outside as a tiny pinprick. It was in an inch wide tunnel leading straight to outside.….how the place was engineered and put together is an utter marvel and mystery. The stunning experience of being alone in the main Pyramid of Giza made the start of the day with the taxi fade away. This was why I had come to Egypt! I started my decent, down past the echoing walls and negotiating deep steps emerging blinking into the plateau outside. That had been mega. The place had got a lot busier, coaches had now turned up, and the tourists, touts and camels were out in force. I spotted the taxi in the distance. Climbing into the taxi I firmly asked the driver take the small journey round to the Sphinx. The fun was really about to begin.
The car pulled up next to a small drinks stall on the left hand side, on the right a bit further up was the Sphynx .There were a couple of tables and chairs at the drinks stall. I got out and asked the driver to stay, as I fancied a cold drink. So, I took a seat under the raggedy umbrella leaning at an angle next to the table. The umbrella promised ‘Pepsi’ in the logo from the 1970’s. After about five minutes a guy wandered up, with a wide grin…” Free drink for you my friend…free Pepsi! Welcome to Sphynx!”. I took his offer; unwisely. Upon my taking the bottle he looked me straight in the eye. “…and Lotus Woman! Greatest Lotus Woman in whole of Cairo! Yes! Welcome to Sphinx!”, he turned around, and called out something in Egyptian. From behind a half broken door, a terrified looking girl of about 12 or 13 looked straight at me. Eyes filled with fear looked into mine. Bloody Hell. The girl looked so frightened. How to get out of this? I could only imagine the god-awful life the poor girl must lead. I needed to get away. Had I entered into some form of unspoken ‘contract’ when I accepted the Pepsi? How the hell could this be happening to me next to the most famous statute of the Ancient World? Hurriedly I got out some cash and waved it at the guy, making a swift exit. Egypt was turning out to be an experience that I would both want to remember and forget all at once. I turned around. The taxi had gone. Shit. Where was it? How was I going to get back to the hotel? I glanced over at a horse and cart. Then, thank God. The taxi was there…about 300 yards away, parked outside a long low hut, with one door, and no windows. I walked past the Sphynx on my right towards the taxi. The driver was nowhere to be seen.
Then form behind me a giant approached. Dressed from head to toe in a massive white robe, flowing in the hot breeze. He was at least six feet 6 inches tall and about half as wide. “So!” he boomed, “You are Mr Paul, from England! I have brother in England! I am Rambo!!”, he proclaimed, raising his massive arms, “Rambo, Headman of the Sphynx!” I started to wonder how more weird my day could get. “Yes I am Rambo! This my place! Yes, you go see Sphynx… yes is okay. 20 minutes and you back here!” Part of me wanted to tell ‘Rambo’ to go and stuff it where the sun don’t shine. Who the hell was this guy?! Why had he named himself after that character so excellently brought to life by Sylvester Stallone? This was my holiday. It had cost me a pretty packet.
On balance I weighed up the situation. Whoever this guy was, he was bloody huge, and was probably part of the local mafia set up. I had no way out as the taxi driver had been beamed away. My options where fairly limited. “Yes you back here 20 minutes Mr Paul, okay.” The tone of his voice had hardened slightly. I decided to take my tour of the Sphynx. Making it last around 20 minutes. My memory of this is fighting past a load of trinket sellers and leering guys shouting “Ice! Ice! Get Ice! Half Price! Ice! Closing down sale! Get ice ice, best price!” So my time admiring this wonder of the Ancient World was spent, listening to ice sellers and wondering how the hell I was going to get back to the hotel. The thing is pretty impressive. Sitting there gazing into the distance. A god-like witness to all the madness going on around it.
I looked at my watch. I really didn’t want to antagonize the Rambo monster. I headed back to where the taxi had been parked. Strangely the taxi had now mysteriously vanished as well. Rambo was there, he lumbered up to me, “Yes you enjoy Sphynx! Yes my friend! I have special place for you!” I felt his shovel like hands pressing down on my shoulders as he steered me in the direction of the door of the long low hut with no windows. “Yes you are guest! Come!” The massive frame of Rambo loomed over me as I was firmly directed to the door. There was nowhere to run. Where would I run to? There was no phone mobile network, I could call no-one. I realized I was now a player in story unfolding controlled by the Headman of The Sphynx.
The inside was dark. There was some light coming in from the back of the building. My eyes adjusted to the darkness. The walls were covered floor to ceiling in red and purple patterned thick carpet. The walls had recessed shelves. Sitting around were four or five guys. All smoking Marlboros, with the trademark thick black moustache. They glanced up at me, but said nothing. Rambo pointed to the shelves. They were filled with elaborate glass bottles. “Sit Mr Paul.” The door had been closed behind me. I was now in a room, held against my will, with no way of calling for help, with a bunch of dodgy Egyptians, and some giant calling himself ‘Rambo Headman of The Sphynx’. The situation was real. I had no idea what was going on. About two hours ago I had been alone in an ancient tomb in the Giant Pyramid. Now I was in a cramped low ceilinged hut next to the Sphynx. I sat down.
The best thing was to stay calm and play it cool. Rambo picked a bottle from the shelf. “This is Oil of magic flower”, he rumbled, “…is for arm pains and legs pains”. He grabbed another bottle. “This one is special Oil. You Rub on skin. You feel new man.”. I realized that I was being given the hard sell. He must have noticed a change in my expression. “you buy.” He stated flatly. “You do not spit in my eye.” His voice was level and in no way friendly. So now I knew. The taxi driver had set me up good and proper. A guy from the UK, in a Five Star Hotel. Conclusion: He would be loaded. I was not loaded. The last of my notes had been used up paying off the guy at the Pepsi stall. I had not brought a lot of cash with me. After all I was having a round trip in a Hertz taxi. I realized in order to get out of this situation I would need to butter Rambo up and buy a mangy bottle of oil. The only problem was I had no cash. I selected a bottle of oil from one of the shelves. “Ohhh yes, this a good one!” I said. Rambo looked pleased. The Marlboro Men started quietly chatting amongst themselves. Rambo towered over me as I sat holding the bottle of oil. “Special discount price for you!” He quoted some number at me.
Okay. How was I to tell the guy I had no cash? Would I get out of the Hut from Hell if I couldn’t pay him off? Who were these dubious smoking guys hanging around in the dark wall carpeted room and just why were they there? There was only one way out and the door was shut. “Yes I will buy this one!” Rambo moved closer. “But I don’t have any money with me…” I announced. Rambo rumbled and mumbled rather darkly and disappeared into an alcove. Things then moved very quickly. The door opened and suddenly I was outside again with the heaving form of Rambo next to me. Magically the taxi had re-materialized from no-where, with the taxi driver at the wheel. “Yes we go and get cash!” Rambo announced as he guided me into the back of the taxi and shut the door. He heaved and maneuvered himself into the front seat of the taxi. He looked over at my non-corruptible Hertz Taxi driver. “We go cash machine in Cairo!” It was a clear statement. I needed to stop this. If I stood in front of a cash machine in downtown Cairo, with Rambo looming over me I could kiss my cash goodbye. “No!”, I heard myself say, “We will go to the cash machine in the hotel!”, Rambo turned and looked at me. “Yes,” I said, “The hotel is over there…you can see it, take me there NOW”. For whatever reason the driver drove up to the hotel entrance and stopped. I opened the door and nearly fell out of the car. I ran into the foyer and got some cash from the ATM. I dare not short change the guy and not pay him. I dreaded the possible consequences as I thought it and imagined all sorts of unpleasant scenarios. I went up to the car and gave Rambo the money for my bottle of Snake Oil. He seemed happy and the taxi drove off and disappeared. Later I mentioned my insane adventure to the Concierge. I showed him the miserable bottle of oil. He went to the till and refunded my money. On the day that I left for the journey to Sydney he told me he had docked it from the drivers wages. That was my day trip to the Pyramids. It was a day I will not forget for the rest of my life. I have never been back to Cairo, and you may wonder why. If you are ever there, and are visiting the Sphinx, you could knock on the door of the long hut with the one door and no windows, (Google Maps show it is still there) and ask after Rambo Headman of The Sphynx, and send him my best regards for his contribution in creating one of my craziest memories.