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Most of us think of travel as a form of escape, but there are some things impossible to hide from. As Martin Stott's just found out in Cairo, sometimes it's the travel itself that forces you to face up to hard truths about who you've become...

Cairo Balcony

By Martin Stott 7/12/2002

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I thought middle age was supposed to creep up on you -- it's ambushed me! I'm sitting here on my executive suite balcony at the Hilton Hotel Cairo, watching the sun set on the Nile as the truth dawns on me: I'm getting old. I don't travel the way I used to -- no longer the young adventurer, taking risks, slumming it, vacations on the cheap.

Luxury has its benefits, of course: the view's marvellous! I can see the tops of the pyramids peeking over the horizon, and I argue with myself that I've earned this. But the real reason I'm here is that my back isn't up to bad beds any more, my sleep is precious, and I want guaranteed, safe food, please (preferably with lots of calories and a dollop of cream on top).

The trouble with expensive hotels is that they have mirrors everywhere. Climbing out of the shower is a nightmare. Everywhere I turn, I'm confronted by this grey, saggy body. The shoulders are drooping, the 6-pack is now more of a 2-gallon barrel, and... well, perhaps, I shouldn't go any further. I need to get out and do some sightseeing, stop being so introspective.

It's time to go and see the pyramids, but there's still no escaping the awful truth: in my youth, I'd have been king of the hagglers.

This is the taxi driver taking me to his friend, the horse-owning tour guide, for that famous ceremony, the ritual fleecing of the gullible tourist. I want a ride round the pyramids.

Taxi driver: It will be 120 Egyptian pounds for the trip...

The latest Lonely Planet says horse hire should cost no more than 20 Egyptian pounds an hour.

Twenty pounds an hour. He's talking about the old prices -- don't trust the books. I just don't want to be taken for a ride -- well, I do want to be taken for a ride.

We argue a while and in the end I knock him down to the 20 pounds, and feel very proud of myself as we trot off for the pyramids. But he gets his revenge. Because I can't ride, he canters slightly ahead holding my horse's reins, as well as his own. But this means for the next hour-and-a-half my left knee and his horse's non-too-clean bottom become permanently and intimately acquainted!

Tour guide: This is Giza -- one of the Seven Wonders of the World....

The ride 'round is great. It's so good, we end up on the site beyond closing time. Over the dunes come three menacing men on camels dressed like French Foreign legionnaires -- I feel nervous until they get closer. They're pimply youths in desert uniform -- tourist police - -- looking for baksheesh, a tip or bribe, to allow us to stay longer.

By the end, I've had a good time, but I'm gasping for a drink, my bottom's saddle-sore, my left knee is all warm, brown, wet and smelly, and I just want a hot bath. And that's when they get me. I suddenly discover I'm expected to haggle again, this time over the tip.

"Some satisfied tourist he give me $50," says the guide as his opening gambit, and my jaw drops. I haggle a while, but these days I don't have the energy for the duel. By the time I've dismounted and hobbled off to be fleeced by the taxi driver as well, the whole trip has cost about seven times what the guidebooks say it should, and I'm thoroughly ashamed of myself.

I'm getting old. Before I know it, I'll be going on a Mediterranean cruise with Wrinkly People Tours, being dragged from Roman monument to ancient Greek temple by a bossy tour guide. I'll be wearing company sunhats with the corporate logo, "Proud to holiday in a herd." They'll be hoisting me onto the tour bus each morning saying, "Good morning Mr. Stott. Have your remembered your sun lotion and haemorrhoid cream?"

No, no, no...I won't go gently into that good night. I'm going on a diet, joining a gym. I'm heading to India wearing shorts and a backpack, and booking into the first flea-ridden dorm I can find. But first, I don't suppose it would hurt to have another of those lovely syrupy Egyptian sweets, and a little siesta. Mmmmm...

From the Hilton Hotel in Cairo, I'm Martin Stott for The Savvy Traveler.

The view from Martin's hotel room in Cairo.

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