Every time I begin to tell this story, it unfolds into a series of flashbacks. Each detail seems to require a prior explanation. I considered the standard beginning “I was born...,” but perhaps that goes back too far. Let’s start out and see what happens. By the way, every word of this story is true.
So it happened that Tex and I were deep underground, exploring the ancient Egyptian tomb of Thothmes III, when suddenly our lights failed. Standing there alone in utter blackness, we realized that we had no idea which of the many labyrinthine corridors led back to the surface, and...
No, that’s not the right way to start.
You see, it was 1961. I was out of college, and had managed to scrape together $2000 to travel around the world. In the event, I managed to stretch it out for eleven months and 32 countries. From San Francisco, I took a series of cheap boats to Yokohama, Hong Kong, Manila, and Saigon. I may well have been one of the last Americans to cross Indochina peacefully by bus. After visiting Angkor Wat and spending a week in Rangoon, I threw myself on the Pako-lndian train system, visiting Darjeeling and Kathmandu as well as the Ganges valley. A German, a New Zealander and I then bribed our way across Khyber and made it down to Quetta just in time to catch the once-a-week train across Baluchistan into southern Iran.
There I mucked about interminably on local transport until Baghdad, where I found a broken-down bus that followed a pipeline for two days across the western desert to Amman. Part of the Hejaz railway had been restored after T. E. Lawrence’s handiwork, so I took it down to Ma’an and visited Petra, “the rose-red city half as old as Time.” It was there (we’re beginning to get to the point) that I fell in with a Canadian who told me that when I got to Cairo I should on no account miss staying at “the German pension.” He even drew me a little map.
So I spent a week in Cairo at a pension run by two German nuns. Its most memorable feature was that they had discovered how to create entire dinners out of nothing but potatoes: potato soup, potato salad, a main course of potatoes au gratin, and potato pudding for dessert. But I digress. I had originally hoped to stay at the famous Floating Youth Hostel—Farouk’s yacht which had been seized during the revolution, tied up at the foot of Kasr el Nil street, and converted into dormitories. But this was not to be, and a Britisher at the pension told me why. It was a typical Egypt story. An electrician had been hired to install lights; he was drilling down from deck to deck until Surprise! the Nile! Instead of disturbing anyone, however, he quietly packed his tools and went home. The next morning at six, an Egyptian appeared in the dormitory and announced, solemnly, “The Hostel is going down.” Sure enough—there was water sloshing in the stairwells, and just after everyone had scrambled to the dock the boat quietly sank.
Anyway, the nuns’ place had become a new crossroads for travel bums like myself. It was located in Faggala, one of the worst slums. Years later I met a woman at a party who had lived in Cairo and said to her, brightly, “Oh, I stayed there, in Faggala.” She avoided me the rest of the evening. But it was at the pension that I met Tex, a six-foot-two American who, like I, was planning to go upriver to Luxor. We were anxious to eat something besides potatoes, so we left by train the next evening.
In India I had become accustomed to traveling third class. At night I would lay my sleeping bag out on the broad luggage rack and snooze happily above the tumult and the animals. Tex had been traveling in better style, but when I promised him a unique experience he readily agreed to go along. He was not disappointed, for about two am some seedy-looking ruffians came running through the carriage, followed by police firing pistols into the roof. It turned out they had been smuggling rifle bullets concealed in bags of salt. To fully appreciate the scene, however, you must experience the sound of a .44 magnum going off in a closed railway car. Tex just couldn’t thank me enough for broadening his horizons.
Believe it or not, we’re getting there. Once in Luxor, Tex and I immediately headed for the Valley of Kings. The normal route is to cross the river by ferry and then, at the landing-stage, take a tourist bus about five miles to the tombs. But this involves bus tickets and entry fees, a luxury we felt able to forgo. Looking at the map, we discerned a shorter route, following a mule track over the hill behind Queen Hatshep-sut’s temple. It was not only more direct but avoided the bother of encountering the ticket-taker at the entrance to the Valley. So we set out by foot, and after tarrying at various monuments along the way arrived in the afternoon at the royal tombs. It was nicely timed because the last tourist bus had left and we were, at that moment, the only visitors in the Valley. Of course the officials did not know we were there; but in our ticketless status we did not feel it necessary to arouse them.
The tomb of Thothmes III is the deepest and most intricate in the Valley. It begins with a long staircase at ground level, which descends through a (modern) steel door into a labyrinth of false passages. In a further attempt to confuse robbers, the original builders had dug an enormous pit, which one crosses today on a swaying catwalk. The final chambers are some 400 feet below ground. At the time we were there, all this was illuminated by a string of electric bulbs powered by a gasoline-driven generator.
So Tex and I tripped gaily down the passages, following the dimly glowing bulbs to the innermost room, the royal sarcophagus chamber. We were examining the frescoes there when the lights flickered, dimmed, and went out.
Later we realized that the Egyptians, thinking their last customer gone, had simply shut down the generator and were preparing to go home for the day. But at a moment like that, one abandons prosaic explanations. We tried frantically to recall if the guidebook had mentioned any curses connected with this particular tomb. We held our breaths, listening for the rumble of a sarcophagus cover sliding off. Do you smell balsam, like a mummy wrapping being unwound? I imagined what I would do when the bony hand fell on my shoulder. Pass out, most likely.
After a while, our wits cleared and we contemplated getting out of there. Of course we had no matches or flashlights, and retained only the faintest recollection of which branches and turnings we had taken on the way in. Finally, we edged along the wall of the tomb chamber until we reached an opening. We felt our way down the stone passages, shouting into each one to determine which were short and which were long. We crossed the catwalk on hands and knees, feeling rather than seeing the chasm below. From time to time we were able to reach up to a bulb on the ceiling, reassuring us that we were on the track. After forty minutes of this, we saw a faint glow coming down the long staircase to the surface.
We arrived at the steel door just as the guard was coming to lock it for the night. He laughed his ass off. He didn’t even think to ask us about tickets. I’m sure he enlivened his entire village with our story that night.
Tex and I traveled together as far as Aswan. After that day, however, he insisted that we buy tickets for all the antiquities. A few years later I went to his wedding in Carmel. He must have told his bride about our experiences, because she made it clear that if they ever went to Egypt together, they would take a guided tour. Poo! Where can you find a guided tour that offers you the option of becoming Trapped in the Mummy’s Tomb?