a stravaig across egypt
Tue, Jan 3, 2012
We were meant to spend Christmas in Egypt last year but due to a nasty bout of the Dreaded Lurgi I had to postpone and instead stay put during one of the coldest winters in decades. Not nice I must say. So it was with feet-itching anticipation that I took Mr. Vic to his holiday home, tied everything down and cadged a lift from the neebs to the bus. When I’d gone to the Lakes last month I’d had to walk the 5 miles to the bus but as this one was later I could get a lift. A dreich drive then took me to Fort William for the Caledonian Sleeper to meet up with Dawn in London as she’d driven down to her mum’s earlier in the week. We’d then hit the sights and make our way to Heathrow to take up our delayed appointment with the Middle East’s sun, sand and winter warmth.
This winter hasn’t been as cold as last but it’s been much much windier, with two major storms before the year’s end and another predicted to hit on Christmas Day. So I had to make some modifications to the car cover as due to a crap design it had no tie points at the front and back and kept blowing off. As I write, I’m waiting to hear back from the company as on our return it was shredded at the front, having been ripped off during said storm.
I’d always wanted to go on the sleeper to London as it sounds romantic, crossing Rannoch moor in winter in the plush dining car of the overnight train. The reality was rather different. I’d booked ahead and plumped for a first class ticket as I didn’t want to share with someone but the first class berths are no different from the standard ones. The only difference is the number of occupants. If you have a first class ticket the upper bunk stays up while if you have a standard ticket someone is liable to use the other bunk and there really isn’t enough room for two people to decently share space in the berths. They’re shabby and run down too and the food is microwaved although it is tasty. I had a couple of pints in the dining car as we pulled into Rannoch station with a few inches of snow on the platform. It was such a novelty though that at midnight, as we approached Glasgow I was up at the berth window looking out on the platforms and late night people we passed. After Dalmuir we switched to the line that goes to Anniesland and as I passed my sister’s house around midnight I texted her to say I was next door! I retired to bed as we emerged into more open country and there was nothing more to see at that late hour. We also picked up speed past Glasgow and I slept well until what I presume was Crewe where they insisted on banging things and shunting the train around. In the morning I went up to the dining car to sit and read only to find nothing but swiftly receding tracks through the rear door window. They’d removed the dining car in the night! So the very friendly lady who looked after us and welcomed each one of us onto the train at Fort William brought us a continental breakfast in our berths. At Euston I disembarked and had a nice coffee at the cafe outside the British Library and arranged to meet Dawn around 10 at Euston. We then spent time in the museum, cafe and wonderful bookshop at the Wellcome Collection next to Euston. It was all we could do to not load up with wonderful books. It’s such a fantastic bookshop.
I’d been sort of looking forward and not to going to Egypt as my memories of Morocco had been endless hassle from hawkers when not in the mountains and we weren’t going to any mountains in Egypt. Having said that, Egypt is known for its friendly people, the friendliest in the Arabic world in fact and they’d just had a revolution of sorts so I was open minded and glad to be getting away from this appalling weather we’d been having. In fact, as I write this, the snow is creeping lower on the hills and the wind is predicted to hit 100mph yet again. Even Wales is getting ton-up winds. You never hear of such winds in Wales and most of the big bridges in Scotland are closed. Also the main road to Inverness is closed indefinitely due to rockfall at the rock tunnel near Attadale so the only route is via Clunie and my Corbett bagging around Achnashellach will have to wait.
I always try to learn some of the language of where I’m going so early in the year I’d bought a load of books on Arabic language and writing but due to heavy workloads and finishing off courses I didn’t get as far I’d have liked but I did learn enough of the writing system to appreciate the stylistics of writing Arabic and how it can become an art form in itself. Who would have considered the name of a bottled water brand (Baraka) could have been hung in the Tate when written in Arabic? The key to this is to understand the letters and their shapes in their various positions in the words as they change subtly depending on their positions and to which letters they’re linked. It’s not has difficult as it sounds and once you can read Arabic you really do appreciate the idiosyncracies of advertising signs, tickets and basically anything that can be written on.
We were on the Exodus Highlights of Egypt tour which in summary is a whistlestop tour of the ‘Best of Egypt’. First night in Cairo then sleeper train to Aswan and a night in Hotel Basma. Sail up the Nile in a felucca with a night onboard. Then to Luxor with another sleeper train back to Cairo for the last night. Lots of travelling and lots to see. Just what I like. I’d had the usual from colleagues and friends along the lines of being rescued by a Royal Navy destroyer etc but we’d had the same when we went to Morocco and it was fantastic. Yes, the Egyptians had just had a bit of a revolution but the travel advice had died down and Exodus wouldn’t have allowed the trip to go ahead if it had been dodgy so we weren’t bothered. As it turned out, the western media, incuding the BBC had been in a feeding frenzy and not a lot of what they were reporting was actually the case.
So we touched down in Cairo around midnight on the Wednesday, having had an upgrade to BA’s World Traveller Plus for no reason we could work out. We then bought our 15 dollar visas and met our Exodus man who took us to our hotel for the night, Mercure Le Sphinx. Not that we would be there long as we arrived about 1 in the morning but it was very nice indeed and with a cracking address of 1 Alexandria Desert Road. Next morning we met our guide for the week, Mustafa, a very well educated man who knew far too much about Egyptology!
Tuesday, we went to Al-Azhar Mosque which was built in 970 and is next door to the oldest university in the world.
It’s a truly stunning building and as we sat inside on the big carpet Mustafa took us through Islamic tradition and the names of the prohpets and the belief system they have. I couldn’t help thinking of the ‘reciting the sloinneadh’ in the highlands when an entire village would congregate in one house to hear the ‘fear an tighe’ recite the surnames of his ancestors back tens of generations, all from memory. Just about everyone in the west who hasn’t been to the middle east has preconceptions about Islam, especially its apparent treatment of women and how they ‘must’ wear various garmets that cover as little as their hair to their entire form but I didn’t see any of this in Egypt. In fact, women seemed to be in charge at Al-Azhar. Thos of us who had short sleeves were given white monks’ cowls to wear in the mosque and the women prayed with the men next to our sitting group. In fact at one point, a lady came up to us and scolded one of us for having their shoes sole down on the carpet.
We also visited the Egyptian Museum which only the week before had been out of bounds to tourists according to the Foreign Office due to onging violence in Tahrir Square which is next door. An upshot of the travel advice recently was that the place was deserted. It was a real privilege being able to just walk up to the death mask of Tutankhamun and take the time to really appreciate is stunning beauty. This picture is from Wikipediea as your cameras are confiscated at the front door and handed back on your exit.
We were in the Egyptian display in British Musem in London a few days later and it was standing room only and you couldn’t see the exhibits due to tourists standing in front of them posing for pictures, ignoring the history and stories behind each work of art. For Egyptian sculpture is truly art whereas, for instance, Assyrian is purely functional. You can tell the difference immediately. Egyptian lines flow and are sinuous, delicate and sensual while the Assyrian sculptures tell the stories of battles and the conquered, beautiful and intimidating in their own right but not as artisitc as Egyptian. Back outside we were reunited with our cameras in the hot midday sun. I just couldn’t believe how fortunate we were to see such fantastic exhibits at all as next door stood the guant remains of a burned out hotel and the musem itself had been looted at the height of the revolution.
We also visited the Khan el-Khalili market which was mental. It’s miles and miles and miles of narrow lanes and shops, one of which is called the ‘no hassle shop’ and is obviously aimed at tourists. There was much pinching of ladies bottoms in the narrow spaces between stalls and at one point Mounira and Faisal became engrossed in proper haggling for a Darbouka, which is a brightly painted hand held drum which evokes the wonderful sound of the country. Mustafa found them easily enough and we continued through the mayhem. You really can’t rush a haggle in the market. It’s always difficult to meet previous expectations and the market didn’t really compare with the souk in Marrakech, the first souk Dawn and I had seen, when we honeymooned in Morocco on our way to climb Jebel Toubkhal. The Marrakech souk is medieval compared to the Khan el-Khalili and I was surprised that the locals were taking liberties with our ladies’ bums. Perhaps there’s more freedom post revolution. One interesting stall was selling tasers. They were lined up, out of their boxes on a table by the side of the road and the owner was demonstrating them to anyone who passed. Crackling blue flashes between the nodes and thrusting them at us as if we were interested in buying one. Deep in the market, while we waited for the others to catch up I got talking to a particularly odious and greasy individual sat on his Chinese motorbike. He offered to sell me it and when he asked where I was from and I replied Scotland he replied ‘good people’. He then indicated one of our group and asked if she was my daughter and upon my denial he proceeded to enumerate his fantasies. Thoroughly unpleasant chap but he did seem pleased we had an Egyptian guide.
That night we drove through Tahrir Square on the way to the train station at Giza. Mustafa’s contacts had given us the all clear but two days later it was full of ten thousand people.
We’d been warned about the food on the sleeper train to Aswan and it didn’t disappoint. I had some unidentifiable meat in an unidentifiable sauce that also contained a curled up piece of wire and the meat bunged me up for days! On the way back though it was a completely different story and the meat was very nice indeed. So I’d say it’s variable and you get what you get on the day. The same goes for the driver. On the way down it wasn’t too bad and I slept quite well on the bottom bunk while Dawn snoozed on the top one. On the way back the driver must have gone mad as for most of the night it felt like I was sleeping on one of those vibrating tables that sorts bits of metal while every now and then the entire carriage would shake violently from side to side and I did a good impression of riding on the devil’s typewriter. Some of us were convinced we were going to derail so fast were we going and so shoogly was the ride. But everyone who slept on the top bunks noticed not a jot. It was generally agreed that the top bunks are the best place to get a good night’s kip.
Our hotel in Aswan was stunning though. Hotel Basma is located above the town and feels very colonial, especially as it was deserted. At night the pool changes colour! It also had some Christmas decorations, two of which were a happy looking Santa face and an angry one. Although we later agreed he looked more bunged up than angry. Perhaps he’d arrived on the sleeper!
One thing I hadn’t noticed much in Cairo was the call to prayer from the many mosques but in Aswan it’s part of life there. Standing above the town at sunset listening to the muezzins calling out while the western desert fades to dark is a wonderful experience. The Nile valley here is quite narrow and just across the river from the hotel, literally the next stop is Libya across one of the most inhospitable landscapes on earth.
We had a tour of the temple of Philae on its island and a trip to the high dam with the rest of the day free to do as we wished.
Most of the group went into town but we just wanted to relax in the peaceful gardens and I wandered up to the apartments on the hill with their stunning view of Aswan and the Nile.
while Dawn read under a palm tree.
There was a bit of a stooshie in the town though when one of our group, a lone lady, was waylaid in the market by a group of would be robbers. They surrounded her and opened her rucksac from behind and even went as far as putting their hands in her pockets but she was made of sterner stuff and with a resounding shout of ‘get off ya bastards’ they melted into the crowd. I was surprised to hear this as apparently the market in Aswan is meant to be the most laid back in Egypt. However a recurring theme seemed to be getting out of shops. Once you were in it was difficult to get out as the owner would block the exit until you had bought something. Also, expect to part with cash for any interaction whatsoever. A particularly annoying occurrence was the appearance from nowhere of a small man in local garb who would point out the best place to take a picture in a temple, or offer to have his picture taken with you or your partner, for that authentic experience you see, then demand money. With a shrug of his shoulders he would say ‘for the cheeldren’. Who’s cheeldren I never found out but stuffing his outstretched hand with a note or two usually caused him to melt into the background again. Blows were nearly traded at the Valley of the Kings due to this odious scrounging. With hawkers and beggers you know what they want but with these footpads and gadflies their apparent bonhomie can turn nasty in seconds if you don’t come up with the cash and quick about it. I was wondering why one of our group came barging out of one tomb ready to whack someone and he’s a big guy and normally placid and pleasant so I reckoned he must have met the ‘local man’ down there. Then I learned that Dawn couldn’t get out of the tomb until she’d paid the odious scumbag with the torch. He’d been pointing out painted sections of the gloomy tomb but when she tried to leave he’d blocked her way until she’d paid him. I was on the point of going down there to kick his head in but he’d just have spoilt my holiday so instead I just went eye to eye with the next hawker. This was a mistake. You see there are two kinds of pest in Egypt. The common or garden hawker and the ‘local man’ type. The latter is not worth interacting with as they are just footpads out to fleece you. The former however are generally down to earth folk trying to earn a crust and when I came over all aggressive with the chap who was trying to thrust a book on Egypt into my face he was genuinely taken aback. He followed me around making remarks about taking chicken livers or camels intead of money and seemed keen to get a smile out of me. Eventually I relented and we had a good old banter and it was then I realised the two types of people you meet in these places. If you get angry with the sellers of postcards and books and all that it gets them down. What I found was, in general, if you keep a smile about you, you eventually get away from them on good terms whether or not you buy anyhing. There seems to be a code of conduct that goes sort of, ‘hello tourist, you want to buy some postcards?’, ‘no thank you’ (smiling all the while). This is kept up for several minutes, your path is blocked and you must weave around to get to the next tomb while your new found friend attempts to extract a few Egyptian pounds from you. Eventually they give up, hands are shaken and a few words exchanged along the lines of ‘ok, I tried. I did what I had to do. Now we can relax and have a bit of a chinwag’. Then you part company and walk into the locus of the next one. This continues until you reach your destination tomb where you can be as odious as you like to the ‘local man’ with the torch.
Our next section started on Christmas Eve and was my personal favourite. In the afternoon we drove out of Aswan and up and across the huge bridge over the Nile where we met our transport and accommodation for the night. A couple of feluccas. These are traditional Nile sailing boats and they are beautiful and simple crafts in which we tacked north against a stiff breeze that ruffled the blue waters of the river. They are achingly gorgeous boats with enormous sails that quietly take you up the river as you lounge on deck under a sun canopy, reading or taking in the views.
A third, motorised boat followed us fulfilling the role of kitchen and toilet as there were none on the feluccas but it kept at a distance and the only sound we had was the creaking of the tiller on each tack and the wind in the sail. Now and then a gigantic floating hotel would ponderously surge past, mostly empty. They resembled giant floating casinos and looked utter hell. Obviously for the tourists. Lower down the river the power lines come in from the desert and cross over but even these were works of art. Not like the squat monstrosities they’re trying to barge across the Cairngorms National Park. These were more like art installations.
As the sun sank behind the high sand banks of the Nile we tied up on the west shore miles from anyone except a bloke with two dogs who was kipping in a bothy made of rushes and we piled ashore down the narrow gang planks and congregated on the kitchen boat. It was a novelty to see Orion so high in the sky so early in the evening and at one point the general call to arms was sounded with the crew as the boat started to drift away from the bank! After dinner we went ashore where the crew had lit a fire and we were treated to a superb night of singing and dancing. It ranged from fantastic drumming accompanying such delights as ‘the lion sleeps tonight’, ‘I got to move it move it’ to moving Sudanese songs, sung under a canopy of stars on the dark bank of the Nile.
The feluccas were enclosed in canvas for the night as a cold breeze came down the river from the north. I’d given Dawn the Rab summer down bag and as I didn’t want to humph the big winter one around I’d just taken a sheet sleeping bag. I wore my Rab fleecy trousers and Buffalo bothy boots and a windproof fleece and was just about warm enough all night although it did get rather cold just before sunrise. This being Egypt it was hot within minutes of the sun rising though. In the distance I could hear the muezzins calling to prayer further up the river and wraithlike strands of sand were blowing silently from the bank out across the still waters. It was a magical time as everyone else was asleep and I stood on the shore and soaked up the atmosphere.
When the sun did come up it blazed out across the Nile and I was warm again and had to change into my day gear and pack up the night attire for the day’s sailing to Kom Ombo.
In the morning I was a bit disappointed as we went on board the kitchen boat and the two feluccas were lashed on each side and we motored up the Nile. I was expecting more sailing but perhaps it was down to the northerly wind and having to tack into it. On the way we stopped at a town to let off one of our crew then further up river on the eastern shore we stopped to refuel the kitchen boat. On the roads, the horn is king. Everyone uses it to warn of their imminent barging past or to berate pedestrians who calmly stroll in and out of the endless streams of beaten up cars and trucks but I wasn’t expecting it on the river. The chap at the wheel used it communicate with the chap at the rear who was in charge of the engine and various combinations of horn blasts caused us to nose up to the pier and eventually dock and the messy business of dragging fuel lines around began. We then motored up to Kom Ombo which was pretty much deserted apart from the few hawkers who surrounded us as soon as we stepped ashore and waved goodbye to our crew.
I had a nice time just wandering round the ruins occasionaly popping back to the group for a short lecture from Mustafa who explained an interesting hieroglyphic calendar but I’ve forgotten how it works.
The hieroglyphs are wonderful though and the deep well that links the temple to the Nile was quite impressive. It was here that I met ‘local man’ who jumped in front of my camera just as I was taking an interesting picture and demanded I feed his cheeldren from my, apparently to him, bottomless well of cash. A ten pound note (Egyption, which is about one blighty pound) appeased him and he shuffled off to find another victim. From Kom Ombo we drove up to Edfu and then Luxor and I found this part of the tour not to my liking as I don’t like being bussed around and the drive amounted to about 2.5 hours. Lunch was a quick stop near Isni or similar sounding name for fruit. I was beginning to tire of temples after the long drive to Edfu but I slipped away from the group to explore the passageways and found a peaceful haven deep in the bowels, the only other inhabitants being a group of middle class American hippie/new age types. Interestingly, along the walls outside the temple, armed guards watched from little huts. What for I’m not sure. Perhaps the junkies who had left a syringe next to the sound and light show gear.
Our destination was Luxor for Christmas dinner in the town but unexpectedly we were booked into the Jolie Ville complex on its own island. It seemed to be a German hotel chain and we had to cross an armed guard on the bridge with one of those underside mirrors that find bombs sort of check. A sign on the bridge warned of a 100 Egyption pound fine if you sounded your horn on it. There was a nice path round the small King’s Island with armed guards every 100 metres or so, so I heard. Inside it was another world. Lots of obviously well to do Europeans were followed by bag laden porters and golf buggies transported the guests to their scattered chalet accommodation. Perhaps that’s why it took 45mins to check in. Bukra as they say in Egypt (Arabic for ‘tomorrow’, it more or less equates to ‘manyana’). Or perhaps the short power cut had knocked out their computer system. My camera had run out of juice as it hadn’t charged properly befor leaving blighty as unbeknownst to me the cable was dodgy so I went into one of the up market booths next to reception where three men sat amid an electronic corncucopica of wires, gadgets and memory cards. Man number 1 wanted 350 Egyptian pounds for a battery (35 quid) or the same for the charger. He said he would need to bring it from his shop in the town and to come back in the evening to talk business. When I showed no interest and made to leave, Man number 2 said to come back later as maybe the price will have changed by then. Welcome to Egypt! Anything over 100 Egyptian pounds and you’re expected to haggle. If they ask for 500, offer 100 and take it from there. When you’re at your limit, walk away. If they think what you’re offering is acceptable as a sale price then they’ll call you back and the deal will be done, otherwise they’ll latch onto someone else. A useful tactic I found was to carry various amounts in various pockets. One pocket for trinket merchants, max 20 pounds. 100 odd pounds in various sizes in another pocket. That way, you can pull out your cash and say that’s all you’ve got. If they see you pull out a wallet with a wad of notes in it, you’ve had it mate. They’ll push for as much as they can get then. 140, that’s all I’ve got. That works much better but remember to zip up your pockets or they won’t stay full for long.
There are many gods in the Egyptian pantheon and my favourite is Horus. I liked him so much we bought one the next day, beautifully sculpted from basalt.
That night we headed into town in the minibus for Christmas dinner as it was Christmas day and we pulled up next to the Higher Institute for Tourism and Hotels and piled into the plush entrance to a hotel who’s name I have forgotten. I really must use my notebook more. Anyway, we were escorted four at a time into the four person lift that took us to the top floor (5th I think) which had a grand view of the lights of Luxor. The usual chicken/meat with rice choice was dished out and we tucked into a fine repast. After the meal we wandered outside onto the low balcony five floors up while inside the staff were bustling around and when we came back in the tables had been cleared and moved to one side. The head waiter kept addressing me as ‘mr. rumsees’ all night for some reason. It really was a curious place. The staff were mostly dressed in western gear and the overloud music system blared western pop hits from the 90s. The back of the room consisted of robed locals puffing on cigarettes, one man per table with ladies in skin tight jeans serving them what I presumed was alcohol. It seemed we were in an Islamic speakeasy. I actually feared for our safety at one point when three men came in. One very tall guant one in the middle who didn’t look too well and two squat mean looking individuals on either side, each in western clothes and each looking as if they were looking for someone. They walked purposefully and quickly past us to the back of the room and after about a minute they returned carrying bottles of water. They were staff of some sort it seemed. Phew! Then the cheesiest trio I’ve ever seen were ushered up the short flight of stairs from the lift and escorted to the front of the room where they proceeded to either sit down and dust off under arm drums or set up a rickety keyboard. The chap on the keyboard looked like he’d arrived for an interview. He plugged his machine into a large crackling amplifier, turned all the dials to ten and proceeded to deafen everyone in the room with cheesy renditions of local music while his two tub thumping companions tried to compete with the racket. What on earth was this we asked? Mustafa nodded knowingly. You shall see, he said. After about 10mins of ear splitting plinking and plonking from the standing keyboarder, a rather well endowed lady walked in and took off most of her clothes. She then became even more well endowed as she wriggled and shook her magnificent form in front of the cheesy trio. How she wasn’t blown away by the vibrating air in front of the amp I’ll never know but she was a most interesting belly dancer. All gold and bracelets with an impressively vibrating belly. Like she was leaning against a particularly unbalanced washing machine. She really was rather good. Eventually the inevitable happened and she started to drag various members of the group on stage. Matthew and Jason were superb and really entered into the spirit of the night and my thanks indeed to Peter, who, having been dragged up said something to her and she made a beeline for me. All I could see was a huge pair of womanly magnificence and a large fist enclosing my shaking hand as she hauled me to the front of the room where I danced Christmas night away with an Egyption lady of the night. That much became apparent as we left them to it. The locals at the back of the room took their turn on the floor, money was showered on the floor and as we waited for the lift we noticed the room numbers on the doors. It seemed almost unmistakably to be an emporium of male pleasure. On the ground floor in the cool night air the waiter waved us goodbye and said ‘goodbye mr. rumsees’ and Dawn explained he thinks I’m Gordon Ramsay!
Boxing day we drove out to the Valley of the Kings. This part of the road was very nice and interesting indeed as it wound up through a gorge into the mountains. On the way through the hills the day before we’d passed the wreckage of a petrol tanker and car that had collided a few days before. Lots of people had been killed in the explosion but the tanker was mostly intact, although burned out of course, apart from a gaping hole in the top. It looked horrific. The ground was scorched and there wasn’t much left of the car. From then on we always urged the driver to go faster when we came up behind a petrol tanker. I must say I was dissapointed with the Valley of the Kings. No pictures were allowed anywhere and golf buggies pulling carriages took you up to the tombs while hawkers flitted from buggy train to buggy train being most annoying. The tombs were mostly empty of anything interesting and crowded as they were narrow with only one way in and out. There’s apparently a footpath you can take from here to Hatshepsut over the hills which would have made a much better way of getting to the valley. In fact the most interesting thing I saw in the valley was a huge hole in the car park that was nonchalantly surround by rocks to keep you from falling in. It was very deep and dark and I was tempted to jump down and do some exploring but I was being assailed by a child brandishing postcards of Hatshepsut and as we were headed there I bought them. He was most pleased and waved us off as we pulled out of the dusty car park.
Hatshepsut was impressive but I found I was admiring the dramatic mountain scenery more than the temple. The Valley of the Kings, in terms of mountains, was stunning but the hawkers and lack of anything interesting to do or see detracted from it. Hatshepsut was much more interesting and you could wander freely and take pictures and generally wonder at the place. We then made for an alabaster factory nearby, one of many it later transpired, where we bought a rather fine statue of Horus made from basalt. We also learned how to identify real alabaster. If you drop it, it doesn’t break and if it feels heavy when lifted it’s machine made. If it breaks when you drop it, it’s probably resin or something but I don’t think it’s a good way to test it out in one of the many hawkers booths that surround tourist sites. You might find they will take execption to you smashing up their wares looking for a hand made alabaster product for the chances of you finding one are pretty slim. There was much oohing and aahing in the factory when they turned the lights out and some of the vases glowed in the dark and others were a fine sight with a candle in them. Beautifully hand made.
An interesting thing happened during lunch in Africa Cafe in Luxor, just up from the ferries. We were on the top floor when we heard the unmistakable sound of an RTA, or crash to you and me. We looked over the balcony to see a motorbike rider sprawled in the road in front of a car. The car driver got out, the biker got up and they shook hands and went on their respective ways. This is an aspect of Egypt that particularly struck me. The ‘just do’ attitude. There’s no malice aforethought either intended or assumed. In the UK, if a car driver knocked a biker off the biker would automatically assume it was deliberate either through malice or stupidity. Lots of swearing and perhaps road rage violence would ensue and the whole caboodle would end up in the courts with two sets of laywers trying to bankrupt either party in the pursuit of damages. In Egypt they shake hands and get on their way. This is equally true for pedestrians. They just wander out into the traffic and the traffic just weaves around them or they dart among the traffic. Cars and lorries also just join the fray as and when they want. They barge in horns blaring and no-one seems to care. Everyone is going somewhere and they accept that everyone else is going somewhere too. On the road from Cairo to Giza we saw some of the biggest potholes we’ve ever seen. There was a huge foulup of traffic as it channelled off a bridge where they’d just removed the road surface and left a deeply rutted and holed mess. There were holes that would literally have swalled a bus and everyone was just navigating amongst them, horns blaring of course. Another aspect of Egyptian roads that was rather curious was the preponderance of speed bumps. They were everywhere on the main roads and they were a pain in the arse, quite literally as they are very severe to drive over. Probably that’s why it took so long to drive to Luxor from Kom Ombo as we had to stop at each one to inch over it.
After lunch we went down to the ferries and Mustafa flagged one down and we jumped on and sailed across to Karnak. Apparently this is where they filmed some scene about running among pillars in Death on the Nile which I’ve never seen but it was most impressive. One of the things I regret is not listening more to Mustafa’s excellent lectures. He knows everything there is to know about hieroglyphs and gods and he explained everything we saw but there was just too much to take in. One thing did take the biscuit though. That was the guy walking round Karnak holding up an iPad. Matthew reckoned he was filming it. Rather sad in a way. Rather than enjoying the atmosphere of the temple ruins he was taking his iPad for a walk. Have you ever noticed that? That gadgets are taking over the human mind? It first dawned on me after last year’s Wimbledon final. I’m such a fan of tennis that I can’t remember who won it but I do remember them being paraded on a balcony or something after the match and a sea of not people in front of them but digital cameras. Everyone was in the exact same pose. Standing still with their arms aloft and a digital camera perched at the apex of each human tripod. It was as if the matrix had invaded their brains and sent them out in the morning to transport its agents (the cameras) to the sporting event, there to capture the moment and feed it back into the matrix. Well iPad man had really been infected as he wandered round seeing nothing except what his iPad could record. I don’t recall many hawkers in the temple. There were a few in the big square outside and I was most incensed by a man who was trying to whip a feral dog to induce it to go away. I was of a mind to tell him to leave the dog alone and turn his implement of oppression on the flaming hawkers who milled around the entrance. Another aspect of hawkerisms I did not enjoy was the paper wallah. This annoying individual claimed ownership of the toilet and demanded money to get in. Even if you pay to get into a temple complex, the toilets seem to be exempt from your ticket price. There’s usually a robed local with a bog roll from which he unrolls a few rounds round his manky hand and demands money from you to use it. He assumes you’re heading for a dump and demands due recompense. I just clenched and walked away. The further I walked the more the price dropped but I didn’t fancy shoving his toilet roll of dubious origin up my khyber so I never availed myself of the facilities.
In the evening we visited Luxor temple which was all lit up, right in the middle of the traffic chaos of the town and it was a peaceful haven deep in the columned interior. You can hire Luxor temple for your wedding at a price of 25,000 Egyption pounds. That’s 2,500 blighty quids. That’s a bargain for having your wedding in such a fantastic place.
Then we headed for the plush train station in Luxor for the sleeper back to Cairo. As we waited on the platform a steady stream of hawkers half heartedly tried to sell us pens, newspapers and bags of crisps. I strongly suspect the crisp seller had just bought them from the stall next to us and was chancing his arm trying to flog them at an increased price. At one point a rather large and athletic looking down and out in a gelabah offered me a cigarette. I shook my head and he shrugged and proceeded to squat on the edge of the platform where he lit his fag, held his head in his hands and spat on the rails. He looked like a fakir between jobs. As I noted earlier, the journey back to Cairo was most unpleasant although the food was much improved. There was a dining car of sorts I think, or at least a carriage where you could congregate but on the way down the others had gone there for a drink and hastily returned as there was no drink to be procured and it was chock-a-block with smokers. Everyone in Egypt smokes and the air conditioning on the train sucks all that fag smoke up and pours it into the compartments. The air is actually cleaner in the corridor. Each carriage has its own waiter who serves your dinner in your berth then comes round making up the beds and arranging your early morning alarm call for breakfast, which is a rather nice continental one. Silly man, he assumes you’ll get some sleep! If you’re on the top bunk you stand a fighting chance of getting some shuteye but the bottom dwellers are at the mercy of the demented train driver who only sees Cairo on the map and intends to get there as quickly as possible, even if that means dragging the rest of the derailed train behind him. Team Exodus took up an entire carriage each way and we left our doors open until bedtime and wandered up and down the isle blethering and chatting. It was a nice way to travel really.
On arrival at Giza station we made for the minibus and the pyramids. I wasn’t sure what to make of the pyramids as they’re just outside Cairo, right on the edge in fact and I’d only realised this recently as I used to think they were slap bang in the middle of the desert. As a result of their location there are hawkers a-plenty and they’re the city variety. The technique here was quite different from the rural hawkers. The pyramidal pests would approach you all smiles and welcome to Egypt and all that. Tell the rest of the world Egypt is safe they say. Egyptian people are good people, tell them, they say. I agree, so far. They claim not to want to sell you anything but at the last minute as you turn to walk away and they do they same, they deftly either shove painted pebbled in your hand or a sheaf of postcards under you arm and attempt to extract cash for your new found possessions. I was wary of this the moment I clapped eyes on them and was waiting for the move and the hawker became most annoyed as his wares tumbled to the ground and I beat a hasty retreat. I did have to laugh at one chap though. He was most persistent but as he’d taken advantage of my good nature in having a bit of a friendly banter and then thrust some crap under my arm which ended up on the sandy ground, I walked away whereupon he followed me, pestering me no end until he came out with the line ‘these people, they don’t buy nothing, they all Chinese’! I had to laugh. In retrospect I should have bought his wares as he made me chuckle.
When we arrived at the pyramids there was a fight brewing between some hawkers where the tourists go down the steps to the Sphinx. One very angry hawker was being restrained by another while he remonstrated with a larger crowd of angry hawkers and it all seemed to be kicking off. We hastily made for the Sphinx and left them to it but we could hear them from a distance until the call for prayers sounded and the place emptied. The normal ticket for the pyramids does not include entrance to the one you really should go into, the Great Pyramid. This is the one that was on An Idiot Abroad and is truly an impressive structure. You walk up stone steps to a small hole in the side where you have to leave your camera with the ticket man (I don’t think so!) and a narrow passageway takes you to another short set of steps and you enter the most amazing passage on the planet. There was a dearth of tourists so at times the passageway cleared to allow you to see exactly what it was you were about to climb. You’re standing at the bottom of a very high and very narrow slit in the bowels of the pyramid, up which an even narrower wooden walkway takes you steeply up to a stone passage along which you crawl and emerge in a tiny stone room containing an empty sarcophagus. The blocks that form the walls of the room are about seven feet on each side and have no visible joins. It is stunning and very very hot inside. As I looked into the sarcophagus the ‘local man’ came up to me and said something along the lines of taking a photo with my phone to which I said no, knowing it was forbidden. On the way back I realised that the spot from which I’d taken a photo on my phone of the huge slit was monitored by a CCTV camera and he must have had an intimate view of my fumblings! Oh well. 100 Egyption pounds it had cost to get in and I wanted a photo. There was a western tourist in the room who was standing stock still while holding the smoothed edge of the granite sarcophagus and was obviously having a mystical moment in between bouts of panting tourists coming through the hole in the wall. Back outside we regrouped and drove up to the hawker camp. This is where the camel rides start and has a fantastic view of the pyramids and also has a welcome breeze. The hawkers up here didn’t seem that bothered and we enjoyed mint tea with them as others in the group went off on the camels. Mustafa had to be diplomatic however as another fight threatened to break out as apparently they didn’t want only one camel wallah to benefit from 10 tourists wanting camel rides. Fair enough but Mustafa had to work out the logistics and then he took the rest of us over to someone he knew and we enjoyed our mint tea looking out over the desert on one side and the sprawl of Cairo on the other.
We had lunch in relatively expensive cafe near the Mercure and while we ate lovely food inside, a guy with an AK 47 looked after our minibus. I wondered if someone had bunged him a few quid to do so.
The last night was back in the Mercure but was a bit of a damp squib as there were other, optional trips on offer to Sakkara and the sound and light show at the pyramids which meant the group broke up and there was no final night dinner, something that’s usually really good on an Exodus trip. We didn’t see Matthew and Mirella or James and Caroline as they were going back to Switzerland and Dubai respecitvely on different flights but we met the others in the morning for the bus ride to the airport for the 8:50 to Heathrow. No upgrade this time but the only difference between standard and plus was in plus you get slightly more room, metal cutlery and a different kind of table. I fear I may have upset the woman passenger next to me as I erupted with laughter several times while watcing the Family Guy Christmas Special on the back of the seat!
At Heathrow we missed the rest of the group who had made it through customs before us and only myself Dawn and Faisal were left. We bade farewell to our new Welsh friend and headed for a night of luxury at the Hilton on Park Lane.
We had a fantastic time in Egypt. The post revolution western media coverage (which was mostly composed of sweeping generalisations) ensured that most tourists had stayed away and one of the highlights was standing in front of the Tutankhamun mask in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There was no-one else near it at one point and I marvelled at its beauty and could take my time appreciating its intricate detail and thousands and thousands of years of history that it represented. A truly privileged moment. Another aspect I enjoyed was the plethora of dodgy looking individuals on lampposts in various collections of election posters. I mean, what on earth does the carrot represent?
All in all a wonderful holiday amid friendly people. Almost everyone we passed in Khan el-Khalili shouted ‘welcome to Egypt’ and even the hawkers were friendly folk once you got talking to them. I had to admire the kids selling postcards at the tourist sites. They always kept up a smile despite innumerable refusals from tourists but if you talked to them they were more than willing to talk back. If the kids we met were the future of Egypt then it’s in good shape. In fact, the interesting folk on the lampposts are one sign of the changing times in Egypt with open and free elections and everyone is making good use of the opportunities open to them now. I wish them well for the future.
On our return the winter had done some considerable damage with the main road to Inverness at Loch Carron closed indefinitely. The cover ripped from the car during the Christmas day storm, most of the bridges in Scotland closed due to high winds and now, today, another storm is trundling across the land. I think we’d rather be back in Egypt.