Saturday, January 19, 2008

One-way ticket to Feluccaville

We take the "fast" ferry to the Sinai coast of Egypt. The journey is short but seems to last the whole day and we arrive in the dive resort of Dahab in the dark. Fortunately there are friends to meet us and the other two backpackers off the bus. "Welcome friend to Egypt, you want taxi? which hotel?" We are surrounded by four lads in hooded tops who herd us into a pick-up truck like sheep. "You need cheap hotel? Only 15 pounds. Come look." "Baa, baa" we bleat, as we hurtle down a road in the pitch dark. Our new friends are not as tough as they look, and drop us off where we want to go, without any further touting. So maybe Egypt is not as bad as they say.....(?)

We spend the next few days relaxing in windy Dahab. Gayle dives and I read in the sunshine whilst our Support Team at home sort out our banking problems (thank you!). It's windy every day but we have a great place to stay (German-run), and there are other travellers to swap information with. AD, who looks like Father Christmas having a well-deserved holiday, gives us the low-down on Egypt and we trade with information on Jordan and Jerusalem. He's heading to Yemen and Gayle is sorely tempted with a diversion. After five days here we realise we haven't seen a single Egyptian woman. The whole place is set up for tourists and beyond the strip of hotels, restaurants and shops there appears to be nothing but desert and the rugged dry mountains of the Sinai. It's soulless, but hassle free.

Our attempts to reach Mount Sinai are easily foiled. We say farewell and head off to catch the bus. There isn't one. "Problem", we are told. "How about tomorrow?" we ask. "Maybe. Ring first." Our friend James came through here before us and hitched for 8 hours when the bus didn't come. We head back to our hotel. After two days of no bus we decide to catch a real bus to Cairo instead. It's a weary day along bleak coastline and under the Suez before finally reaching the Big Smoke - 20 million people they reckon live here, and it looks like they are all out and about when we arrive. Here there is only one rule of the road - survival of the fittest. We are well-trained though, and think nothing of heading across a six-lane road with no break in the traffic - although preferably downstream of a local. We finally find a decent hotel but with a miserable receptionist - a tough call, the man is a git, but we are too tired to resist his charmlessness and we stay. Downown Cairo is bustling with window-shoppers, cruising the streets, admiring the displays of shoes, checked sweaters, saucy underwear, cheap watches. The pavements are crowded with street hawkers specialising in the same things - belts, ties, socks and hats. Men crowd into the cinemas to watch some "hit 'em hard, hit 'em low, shoot 'em up" shlock. There's a juice bar - fantastic.

We visit "Islamic Cairo" - the scruffy old part of the city, full of mosques and madrassas, and a large souq. We walk all day through the busy sreets, and down narrow lanes, dusty dirt roads through poor areas where we witness the only orderly queueing in the whole of Egypt - for the free bread provided by the government. The city has a shabby friendly feel about it. Our favourite place is a large 9th century mosque built with mud brick and timber - it's simple and elegant. The following day we check out the museum - passing through lots of security checks before entering the most dismal building - a 19th century warehouse of dusty pharaonic exhibits. The collection is huge, and poorly displayed, but still fascinating. The contents of Tutankhamun's tomb is the highlight - from the boomerangs to the wig boxes to the sandals to the jewellery. The head mask is an impressive solid 11kg of gold, but was he really cross-eyed?? Wonderful stuff.

Of course, we couldn't leave Cairo without visiting the pyramids at Giza, could we? No. After the crowded one hour bus journey it was a pleasure to be set free amongst the postcard and camel touts. Do we want a horse and carriage? Ha, ha, of course not. We had met one couple (street performers, juggling on a unicycle - at least that's what they said) who got suckered for a 35 quid pony ride around. Just when we think we've escaped the touts one more turbaned man approaches out of nowhere. After only 15 minutes a policeman tries to stop us wandering off - pointing at his watch telling us the site is now closed. Its only 4 o'clock so we ignore him. It is a strange feeling - visiting these monuments that are so familiar, so famous. Close up they are quite enormous impressive structures and from a distance, standing in line on a plateau above the river, they seem so dramatic and alien. The sun is setting and we wait for the light to change. The place is suddenly deserted and peaceful Finally another policeman asks us to leave - he is surprised to see us. It's after 5 and everyone, even the touts, have gone home.Later on we take the night train to Aswan in Upper Egypt. In the morning we can see lush fields and palm groves on one side of the train and barren desert on the other. Aswan feels very small-town after Cairo and quiet. Our first walk along the Nile inspires a rush of touts, like mosquitoes sensing fresh blood, offering to take us on a felucca ride. The river is full of these small sailing boats, zig-zaggin up and down the river - they are a trademark symbol of the Nile.


Stuart said...

No mention of our intense trivia game in the "party boat"?

It was great meeting both of you - and look forward to following your journeys!


The Sloths said...

coming an ignominous fifth place in a pub quiz is embarrassing enough, especially knowing some of the answers we got wrong - Elton John performing with Eminem??and with an assistant professor on the team too. I thought I had erased that particular night from my was fun meeting you again there!