Here’s a tale from my book Hollywoodaholic: Confessions of a Screenwriter, where I was taking a break in 1978 from my unrelenting quest for work as a writer in Hollywood to take a trip to Egypt with my father. Aside from providing one of the bucket list goals of my life to climb the Great Pyramid (I bribed a guard $5 to look the other way), it also produced the following account on another, less noble, experience
I had just stepped off the ferry on the east side of the Nile in Luxor, Egypt. I had also just finished the most expensive can of Seven-Up east or west of the Atlantic. The temperature was 120 degrees and I could almost feel the pool of carbonated water in my stomach slowly beginning to bubble. I cautiously made my way up the bank of the river toward the taxis and the tour buses, regretting all forms of transportation and inconvenience that had put me in this spot: Regretting getting up at four a.m.; Regretting an hour taxi ride through Cairo to the airport; Regretting an hour and a half wait before scrambling onto a plane that was overbooked; Regretting another hour in the air listening to the woman next to me scream about her ears popping; Regretting a dusty bus ride and the polluted fumes of the ferry as it chugged across the Nile. But most of all; regretting spending a dollar-fifty for a 15 cent Seven-Up that was in my stomach not five minutes before it decided to go up for air in spectacular fashion.
By the time we got to the Valley of the Kings, my “reputation” had spread throughout the tour group. Some were actual witnesses, and others got the news second hand. As we entered the cramped tomb of King Tut, I became distinctly aware that, while everyone else was pushed together, I had plenty of room. I walked over to the rail to look over the sarcophagus, an open path miraculously parting through the people. One could get used to this kind of exclusivity, and I began to identify with young Tut himself, strutting (in this case wobbling) around freely as people backed away in awe of his power. I began to realize that respect is a two-way street. With Tut, it was admiration for his royal heritage. With me, it was fear of soiled personage. Midway through the guide’s long and melodramatic lecture, I beat a hasty exit for round two.
The air in Ramses II tomb was thick with limestone powder. As the group descended further and further, eager to reach the final chamber, I stumbled along fifteen yards behind, looking anxiously back and wondering why each tomb was getting successively longer and deeper than the last – each exit becoming more of a challenge to reach before desecrating some sacred and priceless hieroglyphic. A walk became a jog, a jog became a sprint. And by the time we got to the last tomb, I knew that I could be a NCAA track star if only they lined the track with ancient hieroglyphics, heated the place to 120 degrees and sold me a can of Seven-Up for a buck fifty just prior to the race.
At the city of Thebes, I sat smoldering in the back seat of the otherwise empty taxi realizing that I had been poisoned and was dying. Not by the Seven-Up, but by a glass of water the night before at a club in Sahara City. Bottled water is a must for travelers in Cairo and I remember the empty bottle sitting next to the glass of water I had just drank, but wondering about the ice cubes.
Peddlers selling authentic ancient Egyptian coins manufactured the night before were relentless. They gathered around the taxi I was sprawled over in like flies around decaying matter, rubbing their fingers together to indicate they wanted the stuff you could rub, not the stuff you could clink. I just sat there, my eyes rolling around, my tongue hanging out, balanced precariously in the taxi and thinking how amusing it would be if I finished dying right there and just plopped over, sending them all scampering off in fear believing they had begged me to death. Of course, I knew I was trapped. Trapped in a frantic tour of every damn ruin, statue and tomb in Luxor, losing every drop of water I tried to put down, along with all my enzymes. I was the one giving out the souvenirs everywhere instead of picking them up. And salvation was all those forms of transportation away, plus one.
I sat alone in a sagging horse buggy, a limp pile of flesh, bobbing along mindlessly, trying to create sparks by rubbing my crusted lips together rapidly. If I could do that, I could ignite my leather tongue and I’d go up in flames in an instant. My fate was not that merciful. It was one more sightseeing stop. One more melodramatic lecture. One more souvenir left to mark my visit.
The Temples of Karnak were revealed to me through fingers of my right hand spread across my face awkwardly trying to keep my body from slumping over onto the road and rolling in the dried camel shit. A jovial, Nubian buggy rider rested there, staring at me along with a robed peasant and a guard. As I held myself propped there for the good part of an hour, they babbled to each other in Arabic. Probably, I thought, making bets on when I’d slip from my own fingers and roll in the dried camel shit. To their disappointment, the tour group finally returned and my comrades dispersed, and I had all those forms of transportation back to Cairo to look forward to.
The plane was an hour late. The taxi took two hours winding its way through the Cairo traffic, but I didn’t mind. I had made it back after an entire day in the scorching Sahara desert without one drop of water, Seven-Up was back to 15 cents and there wasn’t any dried camel shit in sight.
Looking back on this event some 36 years later, I realize the experience was only slightly less dignified than the treament you receive working as a screenwriter in the studio system.
Oh, and here’s one for the bucket list. Look closely at the top of this shot of the Great Pyramid. And then check out the size of the stones below to see why you need someone to show you the way up (which is a lot less scary than the way down).