One day in 2000, walking around the “back” of the world’s first true pyramid, Djoser’s step pyramid at Saquarra, Egypt, a djellaba-robed guy sitting on a nearby dune hailed me. A camel stood next to him.

“Yes, welcome! Come see pyramids. Which country you?” “California,” I told him, feeling slightly ornery to be asked yet again “Where you from?” Sometimes I’d say, “Wales,” just to confuse, not that it fazed in the slightest, since they unfailingly proffer the rote reply, “California! (Wales!) Very good.” I wondered what would happen if I said, “Mars.” (“Mars! Very good!)

We squatted side by side on the dune to the accompaniment of his camel doing her loud regurgitating thing. First a deep swallow. A ten-second pause. Then this ghastly vomiting sound (there’s no way to convey it in words), accompanied by upwardly-moving ripples of her neck muscles as she brings up a gob of semi-masticated food from stomach to mouth. Followed by a couple of minutes of side-to-side chewing before swallowing and starting the whole disgusting process all over again.

Pharaoh Djoser’s tomb, the earliest massive stone structure in Egypt, c. 2700 BC. Djoser reigned either 19 or 38 years, archeologists aren’t sure. The pyramid was originally sheathed in polished limestone. (Barry Evans)

Humiyed was fifty. He wrote “50” in the sand, so I wrote “OV” which he liked, that I’d bothered to learn Arabic numerals. “Fifty-seven,” he mused, looking into my face. “Good.” He wanted, of course, for me to take a ride on his camel.

I was never the same after two camel-days in Rajastan, just happy that I’d already sired children. “La, shukran,” I said, no thanks. “Why not?” “Because camels are very uncomfortable to ride.” “Five minutes,” he insisted, “then good.” “Not true,” I replied. “I spent two days riding a camel and nearly died from the experience. Very painful!” “Where?” “India,” I said. He thought a moment, then gave me a knowing look. “Ah, India,” he mused. “Bad camels India. Here Egypt, good camels.” I wasn’t convinced.

Trying to look cool in Rajastan despite having lost all feeling below my waist. (Otto Schuler)

“How many camels do you have?” I asked. “One.” “How many wives?” “Two.” “How many children?” “Five. How many you?” “Two,” I answered. He looked amazed.

“Two only? Why not more?” Sidestepping this challenge to my manhood, I asked him about his kids. He had four boys, one girl, all at school or college (this on his meager income!).

“Better have one girl only,” he said. “Why?” I asked. “Two wives, one daughter. Too many women already.”

I didn’t argue.