Sunday, February 3, 2008

A bit nippy in Alex

Apparently it's Egypt's worse winter since 1964 - cold and some rain, everyone is wearing hats and scarves in the evenings. We thought we were unlucky until we checked the weather in Iran which is one country we have been avoiding over winter. The daytime temperature in Tabriz was -21C, yes minus 21C. Egypt seems balmy in comparison. There is a fresh sea breeze blowing through Alexandria while we are here - and we seek shelter in comfy trendy cafes with no smoking areas -oases in this smokers' desert. The great city founded by Alexander the Great has little to show for its historical roots, except for a modern library that recalls the once famous ancient one. The Pharos lighthouse has been washed into the sea, and the modern city offers nothing better to the tourist than a break from all the touts. Fantastic, we love it, sort of.

We head for a real oasis, Siwa, out in the Western Desert, close to the Libyan border. I tweak my back before we get on the bus for a 9 hour journey. The road heads along the dull coast and then cuts southwards through desert. At first there are rain showers and strong winds, and then sandstorms as we cross the desert. Clouds in the sky turn red with dust. The bus driver tunes the radio to Koran FM and we are serenaded with verses from the Holy Book. Gayle hates it but in this landscape I find it creates an atmosphere of wilderness and spirituality that we would otherwise fail to find while schlepping 450km in a dirty beat up old tin can on wheels. After the third hour of wailing I revise my opinion. I hate it too. When we arrive in Siwa I can hardly walk and have to spend a day in bed recovering, occasionally moaning like a muezzin. Gayle hires a bike and explores. The oasis is set in a huge depression with several springs, two lakes and a carpet of green palm groves. Here and there are clutches of buildings, some the traditional mudbrick falling into ruin and beside them newer concrete and brick houses that look incomplete. The whole place is very relaxed and moves at a slow steady pace. So we are slightly surprised to find all the hotels booked up - it is school holidays and many nationals are coming for their jollies and we have to switch rooms. The main square is full of donkey-and-carts and men and boys scooting about on motorcycles. Occasionally we see two or three women clad in grey shawls and with black veils - anonymous beings carted around or shuffling past on sandy tracks. The tourist office asks that local customs are observed - 'no public alcohol or displays of affection', although we see lots of the local men holding hands, greeting each other with kisses and hugging. Traditional double standards, I guess.

You'd think finding sand when you're at an oasis would be easy. When I am recovered, we hire bikes and head out to the Great Sand Sea - dunes that touch the edge of the settlement. After 3km my saddle comes off. So we return and I swap bikes. Then, after 5 km Gayle has a puncture. We push our bikes to a spot and then stride off towards the dunes. We are halted by an irrigation channel. We have to trudge through the sand for an hour until we finally make the dunes - just in time for sunset. They are picture perfect. It is so quiet and desolate, but stunning too, knowing they continue for miles. The days pass quickly in Siwa despite the lack of action. This is probably our favourite place in Egypt, probably due to the lack of hassle. On the Shark Scale the touts here are like dogfish.
We return to crazy Cairo on a nightbus. I needn't have worried about my back injury, as the kind man behind me supports it throughout the journey my pressing his knees into my seat. I am terribly disappointed to see that the video player has been removed from the bus. No more Egyptian comedy capers full of people shouting at each other. Back in the capital we are reminded of the pollution here - not just air but noise too - a 90db regularly reached at 7.30am, according to the local paper. We return to our favourite sandwich shop - pay at the till and then take the receipt to the queue at the counter. Sorry, did I say queue? As an Englishman I find myself going backwards in these sort of scrums - I just lack the skills and experience to wheedle myself to the front. The food is worth the fight, and the place is always packed.


Fiona said...

Keep on blogging John - can't wait for the next installment. Love the Egypt photos too but couldn't view them as slide show.
love Fiona

John Harwood said...

Glad to hear that you are enjoying Eygpt, but your experience with the hired bikes sounds exactly the same as mine years ago, so some thing never change.

I am not sure I like the sound of -21 day temperatures. It drops to 10 degrees at night here in Kathmandu and that is too cold for me!

Good t0o see all the photos too, very good.

Ruth said...

Gayle and John your Egypt photos are wonderful. Stay warm and happy!
Ruth McDonald