Friday 7th March, 2003 Sydney to Bangkok, Thailand
A warm, sunny day and Angie arrives to drive us to Broadmeadow Station for the train to Sydney. Angie and Benny are staying in our house while we’re away to look after our three babies; Sally, Layla and Cleo.
We’re actually going to Egypt despite the USA, Britain and Australia threatening to declare war on Iraq. For the last few weeks it’s all we’ve heard about and it’s been up in the air whether our trip would be cancelled or that Australia would put out warnings on the Middle East. Mark and I aren’t worried at all although so many people think we’re crazy for going.
The train leaves at 10.45 am and poor Mark just about collapses from exhaustion. We’d planned to leave tomorrow but two days ago I talked him into leaving early so we can see Lauren in Bangkok. This has meant him having to stay at work till ten o’clock last night to get the annual budget done.
We arrive at Central Station at 1.15pm then down to platform 23 for the train to the International Airport. We’re nice to the check-in lady and ask if Mark can get a seat with extra legroom because he’s so tall. This is a new tip that we were given a few weeks ago and it works. She gives us a window seat and an aisle seat and no-one in the middle so we can even lie down if we want to. This is a great start to our trip. We buy McDonalds, which may be disgusting, but it’s one of our airport rituals. A drink at the beer garden bar is a better ritual as well as spending ages in the bookshop. Mark buys a double John Grisham novel and I buy ‘Swahili for the Broken Hearted’ by Peter Moore. Through immigration, we buy duty free bottles of Jim Beam and Bacardi, change some cash into Thai baht and buy duty free cigarettes for Lauren.
Our British Airways flight leaves half an hour late at 5:30pm. We love our seats and make ourselves incredibly comfortable. Unbelievably, we join the Mile High Club! We sleep on and off the whole way and arrive feeling great at Don Muang Airport in Bangkok at 10:30 pm. Outside is hot, humid and noisy and there’s the usual traffic chaos. Also as usual we catch the airport bus into town and this time meet a Canadian guy called David. He wants to stay at the Merry V Guesthouse which is where Lauren has booked a room for Mark and I already. We’re so excited about meeting her there tonight. Can’t believe it, then, when she’s waiting for us at the bus stop near Khao San Road. She’s crying but I realise they’re not tears of joy. I guess they are in a way as she’s so relieved to see us. What’s happened is that her travel friend, Sian, hates it here and is going home tomorrow. How the hell can you hate somewhere in two days and, anyhow, how the hell can you hate Bangkok??? Sian is an absolute yobbo and this really confirms it. They have a whole month planned in Thailand and Lauren is afraid to go on alone. This is the first time she’s backpacked and I can’t blame her. We all sit in the Sawasdee Guesthouse which is right at the bus stop and she calms down. Poor David had gone to sit on his own but we ask him to come over and we all encourage Lauren to continue with her plans. We’re so proud of her when she decides to go it alone. Mark and I are drinking beer and by the time we walk down to the Merry V it’s two o’clock and we’re very tipsy. David can’t get a room and wanders off to find something else. After settling in, I talk with Lauren on the verandah and eventually get to bed about three o’clock.
Saturday 8th March, 2003 Bangkok, Thailand
I wake at six with a slight hangover and feeling very tired but still can’t sleep. Mark is out to it with earplugs in but I can hear Sian on the verandah making arrangements to go home on her mobile phone. I could kill her for what she’s doing to Lauren but there’s no point trying to talk her out of it. In one way Lauren knows she’ll be better off without her. During the whole week they spent in Bali, Sian hadn’t been off the goddamn phone to her meathead, loser boyfriend and Lauren spent the whole time trying to cheer her up. Fuck that and fuck off!!
I get Lauren from her room and we go out into Soi Rambutri. I love early mornings in Asia. Roosters are crowing inside the temple complex over the fence and monks are walking around on their alms rounds. The temperature is about twenty degrees and a great relief from the heat and humidity which will soon follow. The streets are almost empty and we see people setting up their carts for today’s trading and some already cooking for people wanting an early breakfast. The Thai people seem to eat ‘fast food’ all day from these roadside noodle stalls where everything is fresh and healthy – a nice change from the cholesterol burgers and chips that we call fast food.
In Khao San Road we sit down in a café ready to order breakfast but then realise that neither of us has any money. We head back to the guesthouse where Mark is still sleeping despite the sun pouring in our window and onto the bed. Although the windows are open, it’ll be like a sauna in here before long. Lauren and I both have a cold shower which is all that’s available but which we need anyway as it’s hot already. Back to Khao San Road for a continental breakfast and then a wander through the temple. We leave our shoes at the door and look at all the wonderful buddha statues and candles. The windows are open and local people are threading fresh flowers that they’ll sell later to the worshippers. These wats make me feel so wonderful that my heart could almost burst. The grounds are just as wonderful. Tall trees shade the walkways and overhang the monks’ quarters and a huge tree with a massive base is wrapped with multi-coloured ribbons. The back entrance brings us out in the soi almost in front of the Merry V.
After Mark gets up we all go down into the street where Sian will pick up a taxi for the airport. Any notions that we had about her being culture shocked or nervous soon vapourise when she sticks her head in a taxi window to ask the price to the airport, says ‘sweet’, flicks her cigarette on the ground and butts it out with the toe of her boot. Hard as nails, as they say. Goodbye and good riddance! She says she’ll never leave Australia again and a good thing for the rest of the world, I would think.
Now Mark, Lauren and I walk to Thanon Rambutri and sit at a table on the footpath while Mark orders noodles. The street is so much more alive than an hour ago and there are wonderful smells coming from woks all along the road. The weather is perfect – hot with clear blue skies. After breakfast we walk up to the Viengtai Hotel which is where Intrepid have their Bangkok office. We’ve brought a full bag of warm baby clothes with us which Intrepid will distribute to the street children in North Vietnam. Around in Khao San Road, Lauren and Mark change money and then we find a taxi to Sri Ayutthaya to try to reorganise Lauren’s train trip. It takes half an hour but it’s interesting because this is a part of Bangkok that we haven’t seen before. The travel agency is down an alleyway off a busy road and hard to find. We’re served by a young girl who luckily speaks good English and Lauren changes her Chiang Mai train tickets from tonight to tomorrow night. This means we can have a whole extra day with her.
Another taxi back to Thanon Rambutri where we buy three silk wall hangings from a deaf man. We check out of the Merry V. It’s a likeable dump but we decide to stay somewhere else tonight to give Lauren a different experience. We look at a few guesthouses along Thanon Rambutri but end up at the Seven Holder Guesthouse where Mark and I stayed a couple of years ago. It’s in a dog-legged tiny alleyway in between Thanon Rambutri and Thanon Khao San. This is a great spot and only 350 baht ($14AUD). We get two big rooms with bathrooms and fans but it’s as hot as hell so we have cold showers before going back outside.
Mama’s Guesthouse isn’t far from here down another alleyway off Thanon Rambutri and we head off to see if we can all get a massage. Mark and I found Mama’s last year when we were on our way to Cambodia and we can’t wait to get back there. Mark thinks they’re the best masseurs in South East Asia and we love the laid-back atmosphere as well. I’m not sure if Lauren will like the Thai massages as she’s used to the softer, oily ones you get in Bali. But she loves it all. She loves Mama’s which hasn’t changed except that the massage room is air-conditioned which is probably a good move. It’s so hot by now and we need half an hour in the cool. Mama’s is owned by Sharlo and her husband and they’re sitting around on the verandah with a group of young people some of which are their kids. They also have a gorgeous baby called Puchai and he’s grown so much this last year – almost walking now.
We don’t have to wait and the three of us lay lined up on the raised mattresses inside. Lauren is in the middle and squeals laughing every time they touch her bum. So glad that she loves it here as much as we do. The last few minutes are always the funniest when we’re being twisted into the weirdest poses – more hysterics and she can’t wait till we come back again later. Half an hour only costs 200 baht or $8AUD so we can afford two a day.
Back out into Thanon Rambutri, we jump in a tuktuk to take us to Wat Po. Mark and I show her the Grand Palace and Wat Mahatat on the way. It takes us so long to find the entrance that we have to sit in the shade and buy cokes and ice-creams to cool down. We wander around the fantastic grounds that are filled with stupas and temples and then visit the temple of the huge Reclining Buddha. This is so amazing even though Mark and I have seen it many times before. From Wat Po we cross the street to show Lauren the old shophouses that are still in use. Around here they mainly sell herbal medicines and dried fish. In one of the dried fish shops we stop to visit who we met last year. He welcomes us into his shop and then takes us out the back where he lives. His wife brings us a type of sponge cake that’s still warm from the oven. He shows us photos of his family which Mark and I have seen before. He painfully explains every person in every photo till our eyes are watering with boredom and we know his whole extended family off by heart. He asks Lauren to copy his address on an envelope and wants us to send him copies of the photos we’ve taken when we get home. It takes forever to get away but he’s been so kind that we can’t just rush off. As we leave, he hands us a huge bottle of cold water.
Now we walk past the dried fish market at the entrance to the Wat Po pier and catch a ferry back up to Banglamphu. In Khao San Road, Lauren takes us to an Italian restaurant that we’ve never seen before. It’s open to the street like all the cafés around here and has a wonderful and unusual Asian/Italian atmosphere. Unlike a lot of places in Asia when we’ve tried to order foreign food, this actually tastes like the real thing. From here we get fake ISC’S (International Student Cards) made up on the street as we’ve been told that we can get into all the sites in Egypt for half price if we have one. Back around in Thanon Rambutri we find a tailor shop where Mark has a zipper replaced in his travel pants and I have the hem taken up on a skirt I’ve brought with me.
Tonight we’ve decided to go out to Lumphini Stadium to watch a Thai boxing match so we grab a taxi for the long trip out there. Mark sits in the front while Lauren and I spend the whole time rolling around laughing in the back seat. Our driver seriously looks about ten years old. I point to the driver’s id photo on the dashboard. It’s a picture of a man about forty and when I whisper ‘Daddy’, Lauren nearly wets herself. Poor Mark is in the front trying not to laugh which makes us laugh even more.
At last at the Stadium, a group of people selling tickets are waiting for us to get out of the taxi. Problem is, only the expensive seats are left and we’re not prepared to pay that much. We wander around for a while to see if we can get in some other way but there’s no chance. This place is packed and apparently like it every night. Thai boxing is Thailand’s number one sport and I think the only way to get cheap seats is to book through a travel agent. Something to remember next time and also to go to Ratchadamnoen Stadium which is heaps closer to the backpacker area.
Another taxi takes us back to Thanon Rambutri where Lauren and I have the best pedicure in the world. It’s in a tiny beauty parlour and costs a mere 180baht. Mark then heads straight for bed while Lauren and I sit outside and talk for a while. An early night at 9pm as we plan to get out to Lumphini Park before seven o’clock tomorrow morning. Apparently wonderful things happen there early in the morning – tai chi, people selling snake’s blood, etc etc.
Sunday 9th March, 2003 Bangkok to Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) to Bahrain
The Seven Holder Guesthouse may be quiet during the day but we can hear music vibrating through our room all night. We must back onto one of the travellers’ cafes in Khao San Road. I’m awake at 5.15am and can’t get back to sleep. Mark is dead to the world so I get up to get ready for our trip out to Lumphini. After dressing and putting on the full makeup because I’m bored, I realise that the dull noise I’ve been hearing for the last half an hour is rain. This can’t be happening – we’ve never seen it rain in Bangkok before. It’s really teeming so that’s the end of this morning’s plans. Best to go back to bed and decide what to do later.
Lauren wakes us at 8.30am and we all head around to Khao San Road for breakfast. This is our last day with Lauren and we’ll have to leave her this afternoon. If I had my way, I’d forget Egypt and stay with her but that’s not fair to Mark and anyway I know it wouldn’t be the right thing to do for her in the end. She’ll learn so much by herself but I can barely stand to think of it. We all try to be happy and positive and I have so much admiration for her. Lauren never complains and always tries to keep her sad thoughts to herself. I know how worried she is but she won’t show it as she doesn’t want to upset me. This is such a mess and I feel so angry with Sian. Lauren has planned and saved for this trip for a year and it’s been ruined by a selfish, racist, small-minded moron.
The rain has stopped by now and it’s hot again and, of course, incredibly humid. We sit in a café near a pond and a fountain which at least gives us the illusion of being cool. Mark has an omelet while Lauren and I have ‘jappas’. Now we confirm our plane tickets at one of the many little travel agents around here then decide to go on a klong tour.
We walk down through the temple and around past the Merry V to the Chao Praya River. This is at a different pier to the public ferry as we’re after a private boat to take around the klongs of Thonburi. Miraculously, a tour is leaving right now and we’re the only passengers. I think a tour leaves whenever anyone turns up which won’t be many today as the rain is starting to come down again. We barter down to 350 baht each for one hour which may be too much but we’re happy. Our boat is one of the traditional, picturesque longtails with a canvas roof for rain and sun protection. At the moment it’s not working and we’re getting drenched as we bounce our way to the other side of the wide river.
Thonburi sits opposite the main part of Bangkok which is on Ratanakosin Island even though it’s not an island anymore. Thonburi is largely a residential area where most people live on the edge of the many klongs that zigzag their way through it. We love it here. The smaller canals are the loveliest especially the ones overgrown with lush vegetation. The teak houses all have verandahs over the river and all have potted bougainvillea and other flowering plants that give them a warm, homey feel. Although it’s absolutely pouring, it’s still hot and we’re loving it. Our driver gives us a tattered umbrella which helps a bit. At a loch we have to wait for about fifteen minutes while the huge gate opens and luckily we find shelter under a bridge. Two ladies in a tiny boat float up beside us. One of them pulls back a canvas cover to reveal a tiny stove and all sorts of vegetables, noodles and spices. Our driver orders a bowl of pad thai which she makes in a few minutes in her little floating kitchen. It smells so good we order some as well. This is the best experience and wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been raining – something good always comes out of something bad, as Mark says.
When we can pass through the lock we set off for the floating market. This looks great but apparently we can’t stop as we’ve only paid for an hour. So it’s our fault we had to wait for the locks? We can’t be bothered arguing and speed on to stop at Fish Temple. Here are the massive catfish-looking creatures that Mark and I saw the first time we came to Thailand but in a different spot. We pull up under a tree about two metres from the shore. A bucket is attached to a sort of homemade pulley system hanging from the tree and we’re sent out bread from a lady on the shore and then we put money in the bucket to be returned to her. Lauren and I break up the bread and feed the literally thousands of fish next to the boat. They look like a slithering mass and the water is alive with them.
The rest of the trip is so enjoyable and it’s still hot despite the rain. By the time we make our way back to the pier, the skies are blue again. We walk back to Soi Rambutri and take another shortcut through the temple. Just inside the back gate is a small market and a few tables and chairs under the trees. Next to a food cart, a lady is cooking something in a wok that smells too good to pass by so we decide to eat here. Besides, this is so much better than a café. After ordering a different dish each, I buy a heap of silk pillowcases for 500baht or $4AUD each. Our meals come one at a time as there’s only one wok so, in the meantime, Mark tries to teach Lauren how to use chopsticks.
After lunch we see monks getting out of a taxi and then we go into the temple again. Lauren buys incense and candles to give as offerings. She copies how the Thai people do it by placing them in front of Buddha. Outside near the gate of the wat we pay 100baht to a couple of ladies who are selling bamboo cages of tiny birds. The idea is to set them free and this will bring you luck. Lauren needs all she can get so she releases a cageful.
In Khao San Road we look for a Discman for Lauren to use for the rest of her trip so she won’t feel so lonely. An English guy stops us just as we’re about to buy one and tells us they’re all fakes. We’re running out of time but we jump in a taxi to take us to Siam Square where the big shopping centres are. Again it takes forever to get there and we race up into the huge MBK store. Inside is like a massive market and we don’t imagine that the Discmans here will be anymore authentic than those in Khao San Road. Luckily we see a ‘real’ electrical store and she definitely does get the real thing (2000baht). Another taxi now back to the Seven Holder where Mark and I change clothes for the plane. Lauren and I go off to E-mail while Mark packs. Crying now that it will be soon that I’ll have to leave my baby all alone. She’s so brave but I know she’s upset. She walks us to the end of the street where we have a taxi waiting and we have huge hugs and kisses before she waves us off. When I look back she’s walking away with her head down and I know she’s crying. I feel totally empty and cry all the way to the airport. I don’t care less about our trip, but I have to tell myself that it will be good for her and she’s so sensible that she’ll be okay. Please God, let her be safe and let her be happy.
At Don Muang Airport I spend ages on the internet so I can pass the time without freaking out about leaving Lauren alone. She will be getting on the train to Chiang Mai at six o’clock and I imagine her at the station and in her sleeper carriage. Our Gulf Airlines flight leaves on time at 6.40pm for Abu Dhabi. The plane is grubby and old but we have excellent seats again due to major sucking up to the check-in lady. This time we have the seats next to the exit door so we can stretch our legs out as far as we want. I can’t eat as I feel sick from worry and all we want to do is sleep. We take our Stillnox sleeping pills that we thought we’d try out for the first time. They don’t work – yes they do, and we both sleep for hours.
We land in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates at 10.30pm their time and seven hours after leaving Bangkok. We’re right in the Gulf now but don’t feel in any danger at all. The terminal is amazing and looks like a squadron of flying saucers has landed. Inside is shaped in a half sphere with two levels around a space-aged structure in the middle. The whole interior, including the ceiling, floor and walls, has been mosaiced in green and blue tiles. Very few westerners here and we see lots of robes and turbans – very exciting. We buy perfume so that we have a souvenir of Abu Dhabi and only have to wait an hour or so before boarding another plane to Bahrain.
I’m asleep on Mark’s shoulder the minute we sit down and it’s the first take-off I’ve ever missed. It’s a short hour and a half flight to Bahrain and I sleep most of the way. The airport formalities are quick as only a few of us get off the plane. We’re outside in no time but it’s 12.45pm and so quiet. Fortunately, a couple of taxis have arrived to meet the plane and we’re soon speeding off to Manama. Bahrainis are Arabs and Islam is the predominant religion so our driver is wearing the traditional Arab dress that’s worn everywhere in the Gulf – long white robes and headdress. Of course, this is thrilling for us especially as we’ve never been to a Moslem country let alone one in the Gulf.
Manama is the capital of Bahrain and only twenty minutes from the airport. Despite being less of an oil-rich country in the last few years due to a dwindling supply, Bahrain still has an excellent road system and the motorway from the airport is wide and modern with barely any traffic. We ask our driver to take us to the Capital Hotel which we’ve picked out of the Lonely Planet. We’d decided not to book ahead but take our chances when we arrive. Much prefer to take things as they come as much as we can. Our driver does the usual charade of not knowing where it is, ‘have you a booking’, etc, etc. He drives us straight there but then leads us to another nearby hotel that’s obviously heaps more expensive and where he’ll probably get a better commission. We insist on going to the Capital so he reluctantly unloads our packs from the boot.
The Capital is an old, shabby hotel which we like because of it’s atmosphere or rather lack of it. It’s the real thing and fortunately we can have a double room. We have hot water and an air-conditioner but neither works. This isn’t a big problem but what we’re not happy about is that the door at the bottom of the fire-stairs in locked. When we tell the guy on the desk that we want it kept open he waves us away saying ‘okay, okay’ and obviously intends doing nothing about it. The beds are comfortable but other guests are talking at the top of their voices for hours in the corridor outside our room. We’ll definitely be finding another hotel tomorrow because at $60AUD it’s not even a bargain.
Monday 10th March, 2003 Bahrai
The alarm wakes us at seven thirty but for a while we think it’s still the middle of the night as the room is pitch black. Our window looks directly at a brick wall and there’s some sort of roof between the two buildings so that no light is coming through at all. By eight o’clock we’re dressed and out into the streets. The Capital Hotel is right on the edge of the souq which is why we chose to stay here. Most stalls aren’t open yet as we’re too early but we stumble upon a mosque in a back street that’s pumping out loud Arabic music and a man on a microphone is shouting through a loud speaker. Hundreds of prayer mats are laid on the ground outside the mosque and robed Arabs are milling around drinking Turkish coffee. An area opposite the mosque has a model of a dismembered body and all the signs and flags have dripping blood painted on them. Mark thinks it might be an anti-Western demonstration because of the impending USA war on Iraq so we get out of here fast.
In the middle of the souq we come across an ahwa or a traditional coffee-house. This is magic!! All the men are wearing floor-length white robes called ‘thobes’ (like you’re saying ‘robes’ with a lisp) and red checkered head scarves called ‘gutra’. They’re all sitting around talking, smoking sheeshas, eating dahl and drinking tea and coffee. The coffeehouse consists of a kitchen on one corner of a covered alleyway with long wooden bench seats and low tables spread along the alley in three directions. We’re not sure whether we’re welcome and we’ve actually been feeling a bit on edge after the mosque experience. We should have known better.
We’ve always found that no matter how different people look, we’re all the same underneath and people are friendly everywhere if you give them a go. Sure enough, the men immediately invite us to sit down. They’re all smiling and help us to order breakfast. We have the same as them – tea, coffee dahl, Turkish bread and raw onions – so good! Another man is eating a plateful of large broad-beans and he orders some for us as well. Meanwhile, we’ve been befriended by an elderly man called Hassaan who wants to pay for our meal which comes to 600 fils or about $2.80 AUD. We ask him if he knows of another hotel nearby so he tells us to meet him in half an hour in the souq.
While we’re waiting for Hassaan we wander around looking at the stalls which are now all open. It’s so amazing to see the Bahraini women wearing their black all-covering cloaks and veils. Most don’t even have slits for their eyes, but black gauze that covers their entire face. A few men wear western clothes but most wear the thobes and gutras. When Hassan arrives we follow him to the Sahara Hotel on the opposite side of the souq. This looks worse than the Capital from the outside but the rooms are better and everything works. It still has that shabby air about it and the foyer is so, so Middle Eastern. It’s dark and bare with murals painted on the walls. The lady at the desk is friendly so even though it’s still a dump, it’s a much nicer dump.
Hassaan bargains our room down to $60AUD a night and then walks with us back to the Capital Hotel. We arrange to meet him at the Sahara in half an hour after we’ve packed. We check out of the Capital and check in to the Sahara. One whole wall of our new room has windows which look out over the centre of old Manama and we have a television, hot shower and an overhead fan. The hotel faces a square filled with trees and benches and which also seems to be where taxis and buses congregate. Men are hanging out under the trees smoking and chatting. We wander around here while we wait for Hassaan then come across the only internet place in Manama. It’s down at the moment but at least we know it’s close to our hotel and we’ll use it later.
Hassaan arrives on time and tells us that a taxi for the day will be too expensive and he’ll find us a private car. From reading the Lonely Planet, we know he’s right about taxis being really over-priced. We follow him though winding back alleyways to meet some of his friends. They’re all wearing brilliant white thobes and red-checkered gutras and are so friendly. There’s lots of good humoured arguments going on until we’re finally introduced to Mohammed who will be our driver. He speaks excellent English so we’ll be able to tell him exactly what we want to see. We take off in his battered, old car with no seatbelts and windows that won’t open. Mohammed insists that Mark sits in the front with him and keeps wanting to put his hand on his leg – nothing creepy just a cultural thing. Because it is a cultural thing I don’t get all feminist about it and enjoy lounging around on the red, velvet back seat.
Our first destination is Muharraq Island which is joined to the mainland by the Sheikh Hamad Causeway. The old and the new worlds collide in Bahrain and we pass ultra-contemporary architecture, like the famous Pearl Monument, and then visit the back alleys of antiquated souqs that the modern world seems to have passed by. We visit the Dhow Building Yard where we see old dhows being repaired and new ones being built. Next stop is the Arad Fort which was built in the fifteenth century. Besides us, the only other people here are two groups of young school children. They’re all boys and look so cute all holding hands. We climb all over the fort and see old canons pointing out towards the water. Mohammed now suggests we go to see the shipyards and the steelworks which sounds unappealing to say the least. He looks hurt and stunned that we wouldn’t be interested so off we go. It looks just like industrial areas everywhere – flat, barren and ugly. The only interesting thing about it is that we pass through lots of suburbs to get there and see how many Bahrainis live. Most of the houses around here are newly built and are all expensive double-storey, cement-rendered Arab-looking buildings. There’s very little vegetation because of the dry climate and the whole thing is rather horrid.
Muharraq Souq is our next stop and we leave Mohammed to find a café for lunch. We find a tiny cafeteria which has no menu and a definite language problem. We finally work out that we can have chicken curry or fish curry. The men serving are so nice and we have photos taken with them after we get our wonderful meals. This also includes two big pieces of soft Lebanese bread, papadams, two plates of salad and two glasses of water all for one dinar five hundred fils ($6 AUD). We love the atmosphere in here – a basic local cafe.
Back in the car with Mohammed, we return to the main island and the old Portuguese fort of Qala’at al-Bahrain. This is an archaeological site dating back to 2800 BC and is undergoing constant restoration. Mohammed drops us at the fort and races off to the closest village to get some lunch. We’re totally alone here. We haven’t seen another westerner since we’ve arrived in Bahrain. Not sure if this is how it always is or it’s because of the war on Iraq which is about to happen any day. This means that we get to see Bahrain as it really is and don’t have to dodge other backpackers and tourists. We spend almost an hour here finding towers, staircases and underground passageways.
Mohammed is waiting in the car and he takes us to a nearby village where he says westerners shouldn’t go. We don’t get out. I’ve studied the Lonely Planet and I keep asking him to take us to see such and such or such and such. His reply is always an enthusiastic, ‘yes, I show you all Bahrain’ and then merrily speeds off somewhere else. I give up and just go with the flow. One minute we’re on the freeway to Saudi Arabia, then suddenly we backtrack to the village of Ali in the middle of Bahrain. This is one place we want to go. Ali is known as the pottery village and we spend an enjoyable hour at an old factory. No-one else here and the people are again so friendly. They invite Mark to try turning a pot. He has to sit in a hole in the ground and uses a foot pedal to spin the wheel. His vase is at least as good as the ones already made. One man takes us to look at the old brick kilns that they still use and we wander around the ‘showroom’ which is actually an old wooden shed. The pottery is hideous and I’m worried that we’ll be pressured into buying something but no-one even tries.
Ali is also famous for it’s burial mounds which are up to fifteen metres high and forty-five metres across. There is a huge one near the pottery workshop but we drive on to the actual fields themselves. These are about as interesting as a vacant block of land with a few piles of dirt here and there and covered in garbage, which is exactly what it looks like. I’m so tired now that I just want to get back to the hotel for a sleep – still jetlagged. I ask Mohammed to take us back to town as I have a headache. Now I’ve offended him again and he can’t believe we don’t want to see more, more, more of his beloved Bahrain. I lie down on the backseat and close my eyes. The sun is pouring in and it’s so hot. I can hear Mohammed talking quietly to Mark and I know he’s trying to talk him into seeing ‘just one more’ Bahraini sight. He actually manages two and off we fly in the other direction. The first attraction is a drive around the sheikhs’ houses. This is like a tour of the stars’ homes in Beverly Hills – ‘this one, Sheikh …, this one, Sheikh … etc, etc’. The second sight is Bahrain’s oldest mosque which is a nondescript shell that we can’t go inside of anyway. Meanwhile we’re speeding past magnificent mosques that we’d much rather see. Too tired to care and at last we arrive back in Manama and the Sahara Hotel.
Before having a rest we must go to the internet shop to send off a few messages home. We also want a souvenir of Bahrain to take home so we go into the souq. Everything is so expensive and we end up only buying a belly dancing CD. The exchange rate is one dinar to four Australian dollars which doesn’t favour us for a change. We’re in bed by five o’clock and sleep till eight thirty. After a quick shower we go down into the souq and watch a noisy parade moving through the narrow back-streets. The parade consists entirely of men while the women can only watch from behind their black veils. Before going back to the hotel, we buy Dad a red and white checkered gutra or ‘teatowel’ as he calls them. He’s so gorgeous but typically racist so this is the perfect present.
Back at the Sahara we sit at a table in the ‘coffeeshop’. Mind you, this looks nothing like a coffeeshop. It’s very dark with a pool table and a bar and loud Arabic music playing. It looks more like a brothel as the women in here are wearing tight pants and tops and are definitely not from Bahrain. They’re very pretty but have the biggest arses we’ve ever seen. They look more African than Middle Eastern and Mark says they must belong to the ‘big-arse tribe’ who store supplies in their bums (the human equivalent to a camel) – I think he’s actually serious. I take some video footage because it’s so interesting in here but one of the girls fetches the security guard who tells me to put it away. A few old towel-heads are chatting up some of the young girls in dark corners and some are playing pool with them. Yes, definitely a brothel. It’s not a problem for us and we order beer and hot chips. The beers come wrapped in a tissue folded into a peak – like little veils as Mark says. We’d like to stay but we’ve spent all our money. Two beers, one pepsi and a small plate of chips has cost five dinar or $20 AUD.
Upstairs at nine o’clock to our very comfy beds and looking forward to a full night’s sleep. Forget it – till 5am there’s a loud party or some sort of celebration going on in the square below our window. All male voices, of course, and all making continuous noise – a very different culture.
Tuesday 11th March, 2003 Bahrain to Cairo
An early start at six o’clock to shower, pack and for me to wash my hair. By 7.15am we’re down in the square to grab one of the waiting taxis. Our driver is a heavy-set man in a white thobe and, for some reason, he sits almost sideways in his seat. Mark sits in the front again as requested. The traffic on the way to the airport is constant but not chaotic. It’s so amazing to pull up next to cars driven by women in their veils and men in gutras. Bahrain has definitely been so different from anywhere else we’ve been before. I must admit, it’s not a terribly appealing culture for me but it’s been great to experience it. We’re so in love with Asian cultures but we decided after our last trip there last year that we’d see another part of the world before coming back. Of course, having a two day stopover in Bangkok on the way over and on the way back almost makes up for missing out this year.
Today is beautiful with clear blue skies and heating up already. We have a one-hour delay at the airport and because we’re three hours early anyway, we have a long wait. In the meantime, I write in the diary while Mark reads the Egypt Lonely Planet and we wander around the terminal. We buy tea and a cake at a café and do lots of people watching. We see our first westerners here and a middle-aged European couple are chain smoking at the next table. They must demolish ten cigarettes each in half an hour. In fact everyone in the café is smoking as this is the only place it’s allowed in the whole terminal – unusual logic. We take off on Gulf Air at 11.15am and again we have great seats. Being nice to the check-in lady has got us seats at the front of the plane with plenty of legroom. We have a television screen right in front of us but as everything is in Arabic it’s not much use.
As we take off we get a bird’s eye view of Bahrain and see how very, very small it is. We cross the Gulf and then the vast deserts of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Cairo airport is chaotic with screaming children and endless holdups at the immigration counter. We stay calm and finally we’re through by about 2.30pm. A man wearing a suit and an ‘Official’ badge pinned to his coat approaches us. He’ll help us to get a hotel and transport into the city. Taxi touts are everywhere and are all asking too much so we go with our ‘official’ little man. We’re pretty sure his badge is as real as our International Student Cards but we’ll give him a go anyway. We tell him we want to stay at Pension Roma and he makes a phonecall for us. Thrilled that we can get a room at such short notice. Now there’s confusion about getting a taxi and our new friend is obviously trying to rip us off. We run away when he’s not looking and race outside to find a cheaper way of getting to Downtown.
We bargain a price with a taxi driver and get him down to 40EP which is about $13AUD and about what the Lonely Planet suggests we pay. We follow our driver with our packs across the carpark to an old, blue van which apparently is our taxi. We jump inside and can’t see a thing due to the heavy curtains pulled across all the windows. There seems to be an argument going on between our driver and two other men. There’s lots of yelling and arm waving but at last it’s settled and off we go with a new driver.
His name is Emil. He’s a friendly, crazy driver but by the look of the traffic, he probably needs to be. We weave our way in and out of traffic jams along a three-lane road. No one sticks to the lanes, though, and we’re often six abreast. We pass through Heliopolis and then Islamic Cairo before entering Downtown. This is a high-rise conglomeration of crowded streets where every car and taxi is blasting their horn at every other car and taxi. It’s a brown, grubby area but surprisingly modern. I guess I had an expectation of Cairo as being like Delhi but there’s really no comparison. Cairo hasn’t the garbage-lined streets but it also lacks the colour of India. Don’t get me wrong, we both like it and appreciate it for what it is.
Emil drops us on Mohammed Farid Street in front of a tall, old building where Pension Roma is situated on the fourth floor. We grab our packs and walk down a side alleyway to the entrance. There’s a sign for Pension Roma above the doorway but inside is a dark, grimy foyer that looks like no-one has entered it for about a hundred years. There’s a gorgeous black wrought-iron lift but it also looks like it hasn’t been used for a century or two. We drag our packs up the stairs which wind their way up around the lift shaft. They get darker and filthier by the second. On each level huge, ornate doors on either side of the landing lead to vacant floors. Finally as we near the fourth floor we can see lights and here it is – the Pension Roma guesthouse.
It looks wonderfully French with an elegant, old-world shabbiness. We book in and are shown to Room 19 through a pair of towering doors. They’re made of wood with frosted glass panels and decorated with black wrought iron. They lead to a wide, gloomily lit foyer with old lounge chairs in the centre and tall French doors leading off into the rooms. Our room is so big. We have a double bed, two wardrobes, a chest of drawers, two chairs, a table, a writing table and a curtained-off washbasin. After we unpack we check out the rest of the guesthouse which has a comfortable sitting room and dining room for the guests. The bathrooms are shared but this doesn’t bother us at all. We adore Pension Roma and at 58 EP ($20 AUD) a night, it’s a bargain as well.
We’re told that the lift is working and the ride down is an adventure in itself. The interior is panelled in polished wood and all the fittings are brass – magic. Out in the street for the first time, we take on the heavy traffic to cross the road in search of the internet shop. It doesn’t seem to be where the man at Pension Roma told us but a young guy must see that we’re lost and runs across the road to help us. He shows us that it’s upstairs in a building further down. Hany Internet in on the first floor of another gorgeous old place let run down by a poor economy. It’s a small room with five terminals and a big, worn leather couch and a wide, open window overlooking the busy street. It is so atmospheric and I love E-mailing home from here.
Now we’re hungry and easily find a café recommended by the Lonely Planet. This is a kushari café and is one of hundreds, probably thousands, all around Egypt. Kushari is one of the staple foods and consists of a mixture of noodles, rice, black lentils, fried onions and tomato sauce. Huge pots of steaming noodles and rice are in the front window and we make our way up to the first floor so we can overlook the street while we eat. Kushari is the only thing on the menu so we just wait for it to arrive.
From here we go in search of the Windsor Hotel. On the way we meet a friendly man call Abdul who walks with us to the hotel. This is a big disappointment from the outside and looks like all the other dirty buildings around here. The Windsor is where Michael Palin stayed when he made ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ and, before 1952, it was a British Officers’ Club. We find the entrance in a pleasant backstreet shaded by trees and with a busy ahwa and mosque opposite. I’m in love with this place the second I see the doorway. It’s the original and fortunately hasn’t been renovated or even restored. A uniformed doorman welcomes us into the lovely old foyer. Here’s another caged lift but we decide to take the stairs. The bar is on the first floor and it’s another ‘stepping back in time’ experience. There are windows on three sides with lace and velvet curtains keeping the room dark and moody. Faded, old lounges and chairs are set up in intimate areas and a dining room can be seen through glass doors. We sit at the bar and within minutes we’re best friends with the two barman, Marcos and Tamil. We take a video of them and then they want to see it played back. Marcos gives us free bowls of very salty peanuts and termis to eat with our Stella beers. Termis are soft yellow beans whose insides we squeeze into our mouths and then the outer coating is thrown away. I also have a cocktail which Marcos puts on a great show of making.
At seven o’clock we walk back to our room and go straight to bed. Outside is noisy till quite late but we still manage to fall asleep.
Wednesday` 12th March, 2003 Cairo to Dashur to Saqqara to Cairo
Awake at three o’clock, keep ourselves amused for a while and then back to sleep till six thirty. After showers we get our daypack ready for our planned visit to Khan al-Khalili bazaar and Islamic Cairo. We have our free breakfast in the dining room which has a wonderful atmosphere this morning with sunshine pouring in through the lace curtains. Breakfast consists of inedibly dry rolls, apricot jam and tea. No problem, we’ll get something at the bazaar.
Outside we’re approached by a taxi driver who wants to know where we’re going. He tells us that it’s too early to go to Khan al-Khalili and that we should go out to Saqqara today. He’s very persuasive and I think he’s right anyway. His name is Ahmed and we soon agree on a price of 100EP ($30AUD) for the day. The plan is to go to Daschur to see the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid, to the village of Memphis and to Saqqara to see the Step Pyramid.
Ahmed takes off up the street with us following. Like all taxis in Cairo, his is black and white and very homey inside. There are plastic flowers along the back and thick covers over the seats. Another car has parked us in but we just ram it forward with a nearby policeman giving us a smile and a wave. Off we roar through the streets of Cairo. We must be doing 120kph in some parts – it’s hilarious. Ahmed is the best driver we’ve ever seen. He’s aggressive and so assertive but we like him already. As we cross the Nile he stops for us to take photos before speeding towards the Western Desert. Suddenly through the tall buildings we see the Pyramids looming in the distance. Mark asks Ahmed, ‘what are those pointy things?’. They look so close and it’s amazing to see them like this. We’ll be visiting them as part of the Intrepid trip on Sunday so we’ll wait till then. We fly past and are soon in the flat, rural areas of the lush Nile Valley.
Ahmed soon stops at a village shop and we jump out to buy water and sweet date rolls. These are still warm from the oven and it’s so ‘Egyptian’ to be eating dates on our way to the desert. The village is interesting with horses and ponies pulling wooden carts loaded with vegetables. This is exactly what we’d imagined this part of Egypt to be like. Driving on we pass through lots of similar small villages and then into Memphis. This is slightly larger but still has that village feel with unpaved rutted roads and people lining up in the street to buy fresh pitta bread from the bakeries. Egyptian pitta bread is called a’aish and we’ve seen it being cycled through the streets of Cairo on wide pallets on top of the rider’s head to be sold in shops or on the pavement.
Not far from Memphis is Daschur. Although we’re only thirty-five kilometres south of Cairo, this is real desert – flat barren land as far as we can see. At a check-point we stop to pay for the entrance fee and to answer questions about our nationality. A policeman, with a huge gun under his coat on one side and ammunition on the other, gets in the front seat next to Ahmed. He’s our personal guard for Daschur. The security in Egypt is so strong since the massacre of a busload of German tourists about six years ago at Queen Hatchepsut’s temple in Luxor. I guess we’re supposed to feel safe but it takes a bit of getting used to.
We drive to the Red Pyramid which is quite beautiful. It’s the oldest true pyramid in the world and next in size to the two largest at Giza. We climb the outer stairs that have been hewn out of one side and reach an entrance about half way up. Inside is a steep, sixty-three metre-long passageway that leads down to the centre of the pyramid. It’s only about a metre wide and only high enough to squat. It’s so bad for Mark’s knees but I handle it much better – no old sport injuries for me since I’m the laziest person alive. We duck-walk our way to the bottom where it’s so hot and stuffy but at least we can stand up. We crawl into other chambers and up a set of tall wooden stairs. Although there’s nothing terribly interesting to see there’s definitely the thrill of being in the absolute belly of a pyramid. So wonderful that we’re also the only ones here. Apparently, not many tourists bother to come out this far and just opt to go to Giza.
Outside in the fresh air, the day has turned cold and grey. Ahmed drives us now to the very strange looking Bent Pyramid. This was an experimental pyramid which changes its angle halfway up. Here’s another armed policeman, this time on a camel. He looks so impressive with the desert backdrop all around. It’s begins to rain but it stops before we drop our policeman back at the checkpoint. Now we surge on to Saqqara.
This is ten kilometres back towards Cairo and we drive again through the village of Memphis. At Saqqara we stop at another checkpoint and tell our nationality to more armed police. We use our fake student cards here and pay only 10EP instead of 20EP. For the third time today we run into Ahmed’s taxi-driver friend. He’d abducted a French couple from our hotel at the same time this morning that Ahmed abducted us. The friend is a harmless casanova. ‘Madam, where have I seen you before?’ he says as he kisses my hand. I say ‘at Daschur an hour ago’ and he says’ ‘but no, it was in my dreams’. He continues, ‘Madam, how many sugars do you have in your tea?’. ‘None’ I say. ‘Ah, that is because you are sweet enough’. Egyptians are renowned women chasers but he must be getting desperate now – no other females around I guess. Anyway, I know that he knows that I know ……. that he’s joking.
On we drive to the site where our first stop is to be the Tomb of Titi. It’s a long walk from where we have to leave the car and we decide to take a camel instead. How very romantic to be riding together on a camel in the Western Desert. The camel wallah’s name is Abdul and he’s a real comedian. As he leads us to the tomb he grabs our camera and takes untold photos of us. I get to ‘drive’ the camel which is much more comfortable than the ones we rode in India a few years ago.
At the Tomb of Titi we’re approached by a man who wants to show us around. We’ve been warned that these men who hang around the tourist sites want baksheesh for just about everything. The best thing is to say a definite ‘la shokran’ (no thank-you) and don’t make eye contact. The tomb is interesting with a huge stone sarcophagus and we take photos and videos inside.
From here Mark ‘drives’ our camel to another tomb where we climb around through tunnels with sandy floors and see another sarcophagus and hieroglyphics which still have their original colours. We leave Abdul here and drive on with Ahmed to the Pyramid of Titi. This means descending another long steep tunnel. Inside is a large basalt sarcophagus in good condition and more hieroglyphics. Now to the main site of Saqqara which is the Step Pyramid of Zoser built around 2650BC. The hypostyle hall next to the pyramid is really impressive with forty large pillars but there are lots of tourists here so we don’t stay long.
Before heading back to Cairo we ask Ahmed to take us to a carpet making school. A sleazy, smooth-talking salesman shows us all the stages of carpet making and tells us that the children at the looms only work three hours a day after school to help out with the family income. It’s all bullshit and I can see one young girl cursing him under her breath. She’s so pretty in her black headscarf as she shows us how to tie the knots at the screen she’s working on. On cue, she ties a coloured string around my wrist but she looks so unhappy. It’s all a staged production and we hate the salesman with a passion.
Upstairs we’re given tea and shown all the different types of carpets. The only one we like and want is a 12″ by 24″ silk carpet of the Tree of Life. He’s asking 2600 EP so we offer him 600 EP. He can’t believe we’d offer such a low price and goes off to get ‘the boss’. Apparently, we’re ‘very lucky’ as he keeps stressing that ‘he’s only here today’ whatever that’s supposed to mean. The ‘boss’ proudly shows us his card which is obviously meant to impress us – ‘Big Daddy Hassan’. We nearly laugh in his face. Now Big Daddy and the slimy one keep telling us what ‘good quality’ the carpet is and ‘one million knots per square inch’ or something like that. They show us how it can be twisted like a sausage though why we’d want to do that we don’t know. They tell us that the money is ‘for the children’ – liars! The great thing is, we don’t even care if we get it. When they ask ‘Madam, what is your best price’, I say ‘700EP’. This sets them both off into fits of laughter and they both lean forward and slap their knees – what a performance. Mark and I are getting bored, though, and get up to leave. We’ve wasted enough time here and just want to get back to Cairo. As we walk out the door they call out after us ‘Okay, 700 EP’ – gotcha! Ahmed gives us the thumbs up as he’s been listening to the whole thing. He tells us that we got a great price.
Back in Cairo, he drops us at Hany Internet. After sending off E-mails home we share a burger and chips at Kentucky Chicken – wouldn’t touch it at home but want it now for some reason. We go back to Pension Roma for a sleep but I can’t relax – feel like we must be missing out on something out there. We get up at 4.30 and put in some films to be developed at the Kodak shop around the corner. We also find that we can use the ATM’s and won’t have to worry about finding money changers or banks. The exchange rate is about $1AUD to 3EP which is a much better deal for us than it was in Bahrain. Hungry again, so we eat in a local crowded café in one of the back-streets. The menus are in Arabic but the young waiter is so patient with us. We agree on an ‘omelet’ and ‘soup’ but somehow we end up with a table full of different dishes – two types of dips, six pitta breads, soup, omelet, eggplant, potatoes and salad plus a bowl of pink vegetables. There’s so much food but including a bottle of water it all costs less than one hamburger and chips at KFC.
It’s almost dark by now and we decide to go back to the Windsor for a drink. On the way, I buy an orange neckscarf from a guy with his stuff laid out on the footpath. Cairo streets come alive at night and the pavements are set up with stalls that sell everything imaginable. There are so many more people around as well and it’s an exciting atmosphere. Near the Windsor Hotel we stop at an ahwa to have our first attempt at smoking a sheesha. The local boys all think we’re funny and keep coming outside to look at us. We sit on plastic chairs on the footpath and drink Lipton tea. The sheesha is apple flavoured and so sweet. It’s a bit sickly and makes us both cough. Mark is unshaven tonight and, wearing the new scarf, he looks more like a local than a tourist.
At the Windsor, we’re welcomed by Marcos and drink Stella beers, of course, and eat the very salty peanuts. We sit on one of the comfortable old lounges and read and add to the diary while we drink. Outside we take a while to find a taxi driver who can speak English. We want to go to the Citadel to watch the Sufi dancers and it’s only a 5EP ride from Downtown. As we enter the Islamic area of Cairo we can see the Citadel perched high up on the hill overlooking the city. It’s lit up at night and looks wonderful. Our driver drops us off at the bottom of the long stone driveway that leads to the main gate. Inside the massive walls of the Citadel, we walk along the dark passageway to a lovely old room where the Sufis will dance. The sandstone room has an arched roof like a church and seats only about fifty people. There’s no entrance fee and we get good seats near the front. The performance is magnificent. Musicians and dancers perform first and then the whirling dervisher. He’s mesmerizing and we watch him spin for forty minutes. There’s never a moment when we get bored and we stay spellbound for the entire performance.
Back outside there are taxis waiting in the carpark but the price has gone up threefold but who can argue when they’re the only way we can get back to the hotel. So glad to get to bed at 10pm – a big day.
Thursday 13th March, 2003 Cairo to Birqash to Alexandria
We’re up at 7am to dress, pack and leave a couple of bags in storage. We’re off to Alexandria tonight but we’ll be back tomorrow afternoon and want to stay here again at Pension Roma. There’s no time for breakfast as we’ve arranged to meet Ahmed downstairs at 7.45am. There he is waiting at the bottom of the lift and he’s brought along his gorgeous eight year old daughter, Omaya. She’s a chubby sweetheart with a shy smile. She sits in the front with ‘baba’, as she calls him, and off we fly through the busy streets. Today is warm and sunny with clear blue skies and the Nile looks so beautiful as we drive alongside its banks.
The drive to Birqash is an interesting hour or so and we see the Pyramids in the distance before heading west. There are groves of date palms, crops, goats, horse-drawn carts and picturesque tiny villages. We stop to talk to some goat herders and they give me a baby goat to cuddle. It’s so wonderful to be out of Cairo again today and into the fresh, crisp air of the countryside. After losing our way a couple of times, we finally pull into the Birqash Camel Market about nine o’clock.
Birqash is Egypt’s largest camel market and hundreds of camels are sold here every day. They’re walked up from the Sudan and by the time they get here they’re in pretty poor shape. The camel drivers are all Sudanese and have jet black skin and wear long white robes. They’re gorgeous to look at and are wonderfully friendly. From the minute we step out of the car, they’re all calling out to say hello and everyone wants their photo taken. There are no other westerners here so thankfully this is no tourist attraction.
We wander around talking and taking videos and photos and then we’re invited into the teahouse. Like most of the buildings here, this is a small rundown shack made of odd bits of wood and corrugated iron. It’s about the size of an average bathroom and has a type of ‘kitchen’ in one corner and a couple of wooden benches on three sides. The kitchen consists of an open fire over which a smiling man in a white robe and turban is boiling water for tea. Some men are smoking sheeshas and clowning around getting each other in headlocks and then pretending to have a fight. They beckon us to sit next to them and we’re brought tea in clear glasses with metal lids. This is such an amazing experience and we’re ecstatic.
Outside we wander around for another hour and both get to feed the sick camels with a type of lucerne that we’ve seen being grown all along the Nile. The sick camels don’t want to eat so we have to shove the food into the corners of their mouths. We even see baby camels (bubbas) and lots of enclosures full of camels for sale. As we walk around, Omaya holds my hand – dear little girl. It’s time to go and we do lots of hand shaking and smiling before we’re waved off in Ahmed’s taxi.
The trip back seems so fast, both literally (Ahmed the Terrible strikes again) and because we’re on the biggest high and can’t stop smiling. Omaya shares her homemade bread rolls and cheese with us which is so sweet. As we already have our packs with us, Ahmed drives us straight to Ramses Station in the heart of Cairo. This is a huge, attractive colonial building and is Egypt’s largest railway station. Ahmed illegally parks the taxi and then gets into an argument with a uniformed policeman. As usual he talks his way out of moving it. He insists on carrying our bags inside and buying our tickets for us. These are EP25 ($8AUS) each for the Espani train to Alexandria leaving at noon. We arrange to meet him outside Pension Roma at eight o’clock on Friday morning and then he and Omaya give us hugs and kisses on both cheeks before waving us goodbye. We feel like we’re almost part of the family. We still have twenty minutes before the train leaves so we head out of the station to look for food.
It’s chaos out here! In a small side street, cars and taxis are all trying to get through to the station and all of them are blasting their horns. The footpaths are packed with food carts and a fruit and vegetable market and everyone seems to be yelling at the top of their lungs. Yelling and arm waving seems to be the done thing here in the Middle East. At first we thought people were really agro and always arguing, but apparently it’s the normal way to communicate. Here, yelling people fill the cafes that line the street and which mainly sell kushari and felafel. We sit in an open café with sawdust all over the floor and eat sausages on bread. These are long thin pink savaloys that taste so spicy we’ll be belching them up for the next two days. We also buy oranges from a man sitting on the pavement and then head back to the station. Here we buy some interesting junk food for the train – ‘Ramses’ chocolate biscuits, pineapple juice, lemon and chilli chips and a ‘choco pasto’ each.
The train leaves on time and our second class seats are comfortable and roomy. We spend the time eating, reading and diary writing. The scenery is the same the whole way. The Nile Delta is green with cultivation and the many villages all have that identical cement-block look. We stop at the towns of Benha, Tanta and Damanhur although the signs at the stations are only in Arabic. We know when we arrive at Alexandria. It has that mixed Mediterranean/Arabic/French look. Most people get out at Sidi Gader Station but we go to the end of the line at the very impressively colonial Masr Station.
Outside the sun is shining in a clear blue sky. We’ve chosen a hotel from the Lonely Planet but a taxi driver talks us out of it because he says the lift is broken. He takes us instead to the Capri Hotel and I wait in the taxi while he takes Mark up to have a look. They take ages but Mark says it’s okay. The terrazzo foyer on the bottom floor is covered in sand for some reason and the elevator is one of the black wrought-iron cages like the one at Pension Roma. The room is big with three sets of windows with green, louvred shutters all overlooking the Mediterranean – always wanted to stay in a Mediterranean hotel with green shutters. We’re also happy with the room until we try to flush the toilet and test the hot water. Neither works although the man at the desk says he’s fixed them. We decide to look for our original hotel.
This turns out to be in an even better position right next door to the beautiful old Cecil Hotel and overlooking the Corniche. Because the lift is supposed to be out of order, we drag our packs up the winding staircase to the New Hotel Welcome Hotel on the fifth floor. The foyer is worn-out and French and very appealing. We ask for a room overlooking the water and amazingly there’s one left. This is also worn-out, French and very appealing. Double French doors with long lace curtains lead out onto a balcony and there is the beautiful blue Mediterranean spread out before us. Our hotel is in the centre of the corniche that runs alongside the bay which is almost in the shape of a circle. One downside is that the bathroom only has a toilet and washbasin so we have to share a shower down the hallway. The other downside is that the beds are like slabs of concrete and the pillows are so heavy we can barely lift them. For $8 AUD a night, though, we’ve got an amazing bargain.
In the foyer the hotel owners are lying around on old floral lounges. One is a huge, fat, monster of a man and we christen him Igor. He’s a real pussycat, though, and he shows us that the lift really does go down. This is another wrought-iron cage and I just can’t help feeling that we’re in some old, French movie. We’re on our way out to see as much of Alexandria as we can today. Although it looks quite modern, it’s an ancient city. It was founded in 332BC by Alexander the Great and is now Egypt’s second largest city. We won’t be able to see much but luckily most of the main attractions are in this area.
Outside we walk along the Corniche past the Old Windsor Hotel then stop to talk to a man called Ali who wants to take us for a ride in his horse and carriage. His carriage is beautiful – black leather and brass fittings – so we decide to meet him in the morning at eight o’clock and see most of the main sights then. Now we just want to wander around and go to the souq. We’re feeling hungry but it takes ages to find anywhere to eat. All along the corniche are plenty of awahs but no cafes. We walk through the souq but it’s mainly clothing so we head off into the main street and eventually find a busy café.
Most cafes in Egypt seem to be divided into two parts – a busy takeaway section and then the sit-down part on the other side. A man sitting at a cash register is usually perched on a small platform between them. We sit in the quieter, but still busy, sit-down bit which has loads of atmosphere. The waiter tries to explain the menu and I think I’m ordering a chicken kebab but I end up with beef kebabs and a whole chicken. Mark also ends up with a couple of dishes so besides the endless plates of mezze we have a table full of food. Everything tastes good although the chicken looks like it’s been run over by a bus. It comes cut in half and flattened from being cooked in a grate. It’s massive and is hanging over the sides of the plate like a huge t-bone. There’s so much meat I don’t think we’ll need to eat for a week.
From here we get money out of a teller machine and then I try on lots of clothes but buy nothing. Everything is cheap quality and very conservative. In an alleyway near our hotel we spend ages buying lots of papyrus which is something everybody just has to bring back from Egypt. Now it’s time for drinks so we head for the beautiful old Hotel Cecil on the corner of Midan Saad Zaghoul. The hotel is Moorish-style and was built in 1929. Besides supposedly being on the site where Cleopatra committed suicide, the hotel itself has been frequented by the rich and famous including Winston Churchill and Noel Coward. It was also the setting for part of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet so it’s obviously the place to go. The entrance and foyer are beautiful but we go straight to the bar on the first floor. Full-length French windows look out onto the midan and the Mediterranean. We order Stella beers and peanuts and spend a lovely hour talking about our day. It’s still only early but we’re so tired and not at all hungry after our feast a few hours ago. We decide to go back to the room but dread the long walk up the stairs. Our bums and legs are killing us from going down inside the Red Pyramid and from so much walking generally.
We’re so relieved then when we get to the stairs and a young guy tells us the lift in now working. Previously we’d been told that the lift only ‘goes down, not come up’ – not too sure how it manages to get up to come back down again. Anyway, on the way up it shudders and scrapes the walls so we’re just waiting for it to go hurtling to the bottom – think we’ll walk next time. In the little sitting room which is the hotels’ foyer, we get extra blankets from Igor then settle into our granite beds. Igor has the television going all night so we both have to wear earplugs. I also keep waking to the smell of smoke. Someone must be fagging in the sitting room but I keep thinking that the building is on fire and how the hell will we escape from up here. Despite all this we manage to get heaps of sleep.
Friday 14th March, 2003 Alexandria to Cairo
At six-thirty we ask Igor to turn on the heater so we can have a shower in the shared bathroom. I get lukewarm water for about twenty seconds and then I have to wash my hair in freezing water. Mark is next and freezes as well. Igor says ‘good?’ with a big smile and we don’t have the heart to tell him he just about killed us – we say ‘good’, too, and he’s happy.
Getting dressed with the French doors open onto the balcony, our million-dollar view and a beautiful warm day ahead, we feel exceptionally lucky. Downstairs we meet Ali with his horse and carriage and set off along the Corniche. Our first stop is the Church of St Katherine where we’re shown around by an old man who we think is speaking Italian. The church is lovely anyway. From here we clipclop our way through the quiet streets to Pompeii’s Pillar. It took a while to understand where Ali wanted to take us and at first we thought we were off to see Bombay’s Biller. This apparently famous pillar is set on a mound behind a stone wall. Tall gates at the entrance stop would-be gatecrashers and we have to pay to get in and then they want $50 AUD to take in our video camera. It’s a stone collumn, for God sake, and you can see it from the street anyway. We take some pictures inside and wonder what all the fuss is about. Apparently it’s one of the only things left standing from ancient times as most of the monuments and buildings were either dismantled and used for something else or destroyed by earthquakes.
Ali is feeding his horse with a handful of green lucerne when we meet him outside. He takes us now to the Catacombs of Kom ash-Shuqqafa. These are three levels of underground Roman burial chambers that were discovered in 1900 when a donkey fell into them through a hole in the street above. They’re reached by a stone spiral staircase that winds its way down around a deep well. It’s amazing down here with little chambers leading off in all directions and even a banquet hall where relatives of the dead could come for a picnic. Most bodies were put in pigeonhole type chambers dug into the rock and then sealed up with plaster slabs. We’re alone most of the time and are able to take lots of video footage even though we didn’t pay for a ticket. We’ve also been able to use our student cards at each place so we’re saving a fortune.
It’s now around ten o’clock and the streets are busy again. This horse-and-carriage way to get around Alexandria is perfect as we really get to see things at a slower pace and people are waving and calling out ‘welcome’. We pass through a busy fruit and vegetable market and then into a more residential area. Lots of people are sitting outside their old apartments, which all have green or yellow louvred shutters. We’re on our way to Pastroudis – one of the old period cafes that Alexandria is famous for.
From the 1800’s to the 1950’s Alexandria was the haunt of writers like E. M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell and was the ‘in’ place to hang out. Now Michael Palin describes its faded glory as ‘Cannes with acne’ but some of the old cafes still hang in there. Pastroudis is one of them. It has tables and chairs set up on the pavement and inside is dimly lit with an atmosphere that only comes from the original surroundings of a bygone era. Lunch won’t be served for a while so we head off in search of another café. Nothing seems to be open yet although it’s almost lunchtime. Things seem to work on a different time schedule here and we have to get used to eating and shopping at later hours.
While we’re clopping around looking for open cafes, we stop to look at Fort Qaitbey and the Mosque of Abu Abbas. All very beautiful and interesting but we’re starving so we tell Ali that the tour is over and to take us back to our hotel. We’ve been with Ali for three hours and it’s still only eleven o’clock. We check out of the New Hotel Welcome Hotel and leave our bags in storage with Igor. The lounge/foyer is full of sunshine this morning and the television is blaring out old French cartoons.
We’re so hungry by now as we haven’t eaten all day. We look for another period café not far from the Corniche but come across McDonalds. It’s a crime but we have a quick hamburger to tide us over. Glad to see that any of these western fast-food places are nearly always empty so that they won’t be taking over from Egypt’s own favourites of felafel, kushari and kebabs. There’s an internet place down a nearby alleyway so we do some E-mailing while the call-to-prayer bellows at us from outside. We’re thrilled that Lauren is still continuing her plans to go to Southern Thailand and Angie’s E-mails have us laughing again.
Back towards the Corniche we come across the Trianon which is the old café that we’d been looking for and must have walked straight past. This is even more wonderful than Pastroudis and has huge ceilings with massive chandeliers and dark wooden panelling on the walls – very French, very sepia. We drink tea and coffee and the creamiest slice of cake we can find. Before we leave Alexandria we want to have a drink at the Windsor Palace Hotel which is right on the Corniche next door to our hotel. We’re shown to the salon which is decorated in the style of the Palace of Versailles. A gorgeous, waif-like French waitress takes our order of a glass of French wine each. This comes to 48 EP which is twice the cost of our room last night but we just have to do it. We’re the only ones here and feel soooo rich and famous sitting on Louis XIV-style lounges looking out at the Mediterranean. The wine is so relaxing but we have to get moving to catch the two o’clock train back to Cairo.
We collect our bags and find another horse and carriage to take us to the station. At two o’clock we’re aboard the Turbini train and soon speeding towards Cairo. The train is old but comfy with green curtains and little venetians at every window. We’re served tea and cake and feel very pampered. It’s an enjoyable two hours to Ramses Station but the taxi ride to Pension Roma is painstakingly slow through the afternoon traffic jams. We’re given the same room as before and we’re out again in minutes and on our way to Giza.
Each evening there’s a sound and light show at the Pyramids and we’ve decided to make our way out there via the Metro. This is Cairo’s underground railway system and we find an entrance about a twenty-minute walk from the hotel. Downtown at 5.30pm is incredibly busy and the railway station is the same. Mark buys our tickets to Giza at the ticket window where the ticket sellers are ‘being crazy’, as they tell us, and having a good laugh with each other. We travel one station to Sadat then get off and walk down to the next level to catch another train to Giza. The Cairo train system is impressively fast and efficient. We’re the only westerners in our carriage and are stared at for the entire trip. It must be obvious where we’re headed and a nice man tells us to get off at El Giza and not Giza which will be too far out of our way. He also chases after us and points us in the right direction when we get off the train – very kind and no baksheesh. The taxi to Giza is a tiresome twenty minutes through crowded streets then along the endlessly straight Pyramids Road. Finally we see the magnificent huge shapes of the Pyramids looming up above the buildings in the twilight.
Our driver thinks we’re nuts and keeps trying to tell us that they’re closed as it’s almost dark. As we pull into a village, though, there is the open ticket office right in front of the Sphinx. The Pyramids are further away than they look but their hugeness makes them seem so close. With our ISC cards we’re lucky get in for 33EP each instead of 44EP but not so lucky when we try to sneak in our video camera. We pay 30EP to take it in, which is probably a waste of money as it’ll be too dark to see anything through it. We’re ushered to a platformed area set up with tables and chairs with waiters hovering around to take drink and food orders – how very civilised. After our eyes adjust to the dark we can see that there are rows of empty seats much closer to the show so we move down there. The show begins and ends with dramatic music and voice-overs telling us the history of Egypt. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on the touristy heroes like Cleopatra and Tutankharmen both of which weren’t really the superstars of Egypt. A barking dog throughout the whole show also deflects from the dramatic atmosphere and the whole thing is a bit of a comedy. It’s hollywood and tacky but we’re glad we’ve come anyway. After all, it’s a calm, starry night and there are the Pyramids of Giza right before us.
Outside we push through the crowds of tourists lined up for the French version which is coming up next. We decide to eat at one of the local cafés across the road instead of going back Downtown just yet. We’re ready to sit down when the waiter asks us if we want to sit upstairs. We follow him up a steep staircase to a rooftop restaurant with bird’s eye views of the whole thing we’ve just seen. My God, we could have come here for nothing. There’s only one other group of people here and we sit at a table right on the balcony. Now we watch the whole performance again in French while eating pizza and drinking beer. We think it’s hilarious especially after a few drinks each and we laugh all the way back to Pension Roma. Bed at 10.30pm – a great day.
Saturday 15th March, 2003 Cairo
We’re up early at 6.30am to pack, dress and have breakfast in the sunny old dining room before we have to meet Ahmed downstairs. Mark stores our gear in the boot and we drive to the Carlton Hotel which is where we’re booked into tonight with Intrepid. It’s only about a kilometre away and situated down a narrow sidestreet off the very busy 26th July Street. The Carlton is another time-warp hotel and just as lovely as the Windsor. The foyer is dim because of the heavy curtains at the windows and the wood-panelled walls. It has a combined colonial/Egyptian look with plush furniture and brass light fittings. We feel sorry for the staff who look bored standing around in suits and ties. Although it’s early, our room is ready and we take our bags up in the tiny lift to the seventh floor while Ahmed makes himself at home in the foyer. We love our room which is big and airy with a wide, open window that lets the sun pour inside. It’s a bit sparse and hasn’t that magical feel of Pension Roma but it’s clean and we have our own bathroom. We leave the unpacking to later and meet Ahmed within minutes.
Now we’re off to the Citadel and the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. The Citadel looks just as impressive during the day and it can be seen from most parts of the city. We visit the mosque first and I’m asked to wear a long, green gown over my clothes. Good views of the city can be seen from two sides of the mosque and we take lots of photos.
It’s a warm, sunny day and the best weather we’ve had so far. Also inside the Citadel is the Military Museum which sounds very dull but we may as well have a look while we’re here. Actually, it’s quite interesting but the best part about it is that it’s situated in an old palace. This was once Mohammed Ali’s Harem Palace and is massive and gorgeous. Everything is huge as a palace should be – rooms, ceilings, staircases, and chandeliers.
From the Citadel, Ahmed drives us down the hill and into Islamic Cairo. We stop at the Mosque of Sultan Hassan where a guide latches onto us. Apparently, he’s speaking English but we can’t understand a word and then he wants baksheesh afterwards. From here we drive to another mosque which is supposedly very important but we have no idea where we are. Before we go in, we wander up the street which is lined with tiny shops and street carts. From one of the food carts we watch fuul being prepared and we buy a plateful each. Fuul is mashed fava beans which is mixed with oils and humus and other things spooned in from jars lined up on the cart. We’re given soft flat pieces of shammy bread to scoop it up with as well as a plate of sliced tomatoes covered with lemon juice. It’s the best taste and the people all around here are so nice.
Inside the mosque we have to tie booties over our shoes instead of taking them off. They look weird and make us walk funny. The mosque is under renovation so it’s not too appealing but we decide to climb the minaret behind. The top is reached by a winding staircase that wraps itself around the tower. We’re so high up and get more good views of the city and especially Islamic Cairo.
Our next stop is Coptic Cairo which is on the other side of the city. On the way, Ahmed stops at a juice stand and buys us all fresh orange juice. At Coptic Cairo he parks the car while we walk into the area which is behind high stone walls that enclose Cairo’s Christian community. We don’t have too much time to spend here so we go straight to the Convent of St George. Here we have heavy chains wrapped around our bodies as a kind of blessing and I light candles and stick them in a pile of sand. Have no idea what I’m doing but just copy everyone else. We also look into tiny chapels that have been carved out of the side of the hill that the convent is built against. The main chapel is majorly beautiful and makes me appreciate Christian places of worship for a change.
It’s so hot now but we still want to go to Khan al-Khalili. This is Cairo’s huge oriental bazaar and is situated back over in the Islamic area. It was built in 1382 and still has an ancient feel. Ahmed drops us off near one of the entrances and arranges to pick us up in a couple of hours. We let ourselves get lost in the maze of alleyways all protected from the sun with canvas shelters. The shops are tiny and sell exotic spices and perfumes. We spend ages with a nice man buying ten beautiful glass perfume bottles and lotus perfume, all for $60 AUD. As is the custom, he orders mint tea for us to drink with him while we make the deal. At another stall we haggle for a brass and green glass sheesha ($35 AUD), a galabaya for Mark ($14 AUD) and a black and gold beaded headdress for me ($3 AUD). The bazaar is very Middle Eastern and, like the whole of Islamic Cairo, just how we imagined Egypt to be.
We meet Ahmed as arranged and he drives us back to the Carlton. It’s probably the last time we’ll see him as we’re with Intrepid tomorrow and we leave for Aswan tomorrow night. We thank him for being a fabulous guide and friend. We dump our purchases in our room and then head back out into the street. In the backstreets near the hotel is a fruit and vegetable market and we buy a big bag of strawberries and then ‘potatoes’ (hot chips) and falafel from a tiny shop. Back at the Carlton I spend an hour on the internet while Mark goes out to get some money. We rest in our room till six o’clock when we meet the Intrepid group in the dining room downstairs.
Our leader is Jo. A big red-headed Aussie girl with lots of confidence. Claude is an Indian-looking New Zealand girl who’s coming on the trip so that she can learn to lead later tours. The group is us, Jenny from England, Ian from New Zealand, Steve from England, and the rest are Australians – Donna, Carolyn and Jim (a couple) and Ross and Cheryl (another couple). The bad news is that if the United States invades Iraq and if Australia puts out a warning on Egypt because of it, then Intrepid will be forced to cancel the trip. Apparently they won’t be covered by insurance and so they’d have no option. After Jo gives us the trip rundown we all walk around to a local café for dinner. This is rather upmarket and a bit of a disappointment considering all the wonderful smaller atmospheric cafés all around here. The company is good though and so is the food. We all have an early night to pack for tomorrow’s check-out at seven in the morning.
Sunday 16th March, 2003 Cairo to Aswan
At six o’clock we shower and pack as we all have to be in two dayrooms by seven o’clock. Mark and I have breakfast in the dining room with Jo and Claude. There’s so much food – rolls, cakes, eggs, tea, coffee …. By 7.45 am we’re all ready to set off for the Pyramids. Claude is dressed in a mauve Indian outfit and is loving herself to death – this trip is going to be interesting. Now we’re introduced to a beautiful woman called Soha who is to be our Egyptian guide for the day. Jo leads us to the Metro at Nasser Station and makes a huge deal about the whole train-catching thing. Since Mark and I have already used the Metro we start to get suspicious about Jo being an ego-maniac especially when she puts her hand up in the air every time she wants us to stop.
What we didn’t know is that the first two carriages are for women only, so we get separated from the men. I sit with Soha and we get along like old friends. She is wearing the headscarf like all the other women on the train but it’s like talking to a friend at home. It just goes to show that we’re all the same no matter what our religion or culture. Meeting real local people is the best part of travelling. I mean, it’s great to see fabulous tourist attractions but to interact with the people is something you can only get from actually being there. Soha tells me that the segregated carriages have only been happening for the last ten years. The women wanted it themselves and when it first happened they were so happy that they would dance and sing because they could be themselves away from the men.
She also tells me that although she’s covered from head to toe, it’s what the women agree with anyway and at home they wear what they want. Only the face and hands can be showing so they all wear the headscarf and long loose clothes in public. She has a law degree but hated law and decided to be an English-speaking tour guide instead.
We change trains like we did two nights ago at Sadat Station and then continue on for six more stops to Giza. Soha takes us in a different direction when we get off the train. To get the taxis from here we have to cross a busy freeway. Jo says ‘how are we going to get across that?’ but Soha says ‘it’s easy’ and runs out into the middle of the road, sideways and crouched like a spider, and with her hands up in a ‘stop’ position. This is a three-lane freeway but no problem. Everyone stops while we run across and no-one seems to mind. In four taxis we head along Pyramid Road until we can see the Pyramids in the distance. Soha comes with me and Mark and screams laughing when she sees herself played back in the video. ‘I don’t look like that!’ she keeps saying – we women are all the same.
The taxis drop us at a carpark only a hundred metres from the Great Pyramid. This is Khufu’s pyramid and is the biggest in the world. Of course this means that it’s the largest of the three here at Giza which are all over four and a half thousand years old. Their once smooth and glowing outer coating of white limestone has been either pinched or weathered away to leave exposed the massive blocks that were precisely fitted together to give them their shape. It’s only when we get up close do we realise how huge each one is. The Great Pyramid is said to be made up of almost two and a half million limestone blocks all weighing two and a half tonnes each.
We’re too late to get tickets to go inside Khufu’s Pyramid as they only allow one hundred and fifty people to enter the pyramid in the morning and another one hundred and fifty in the afternoon. Mark and I aren’t bothered as we’ve already had the experience at the Red Pyramid at Daschur. Instead we spend some time outside and listen to Soha giving us the tourist guide rundown.
From here we head for the hill far behind all the pyramids where we can get panoramic views of the whole area. Jenny and I decide to go by camel and we set off with a camel wallah each. They’re both young and friendly and don’t hassle for more than the 10EP that we agree on. We have an enjoyable, if painful, time on the long walk to the meet Mark and the others.
While Cairo has encroached to almost the foot of the Pyramids on one side, the other is completely desert. Looking back at them from the hill, the city has almost disappeared in its own smog. Ironically this creates a mystical scene especially with camels being led across in front of us with the giant tombs behind them. There’s lots of photo opportunities from here and the hawkers are making the most of the crowds of tourists.
Now we all walk down to the smallest of the Giza pyramids – the Pyramid of Menkaure. Most of us decide to go down inside. The entrance is again half way up one side and leads to a long tunnel that descends to a number of hot and stuffy antechambers and then to the main tomb chamber. So glad to get back out into the fresh cool air. Walking down to the Sphinx past the Pyramid of Khafre, we see a young girl on a runaway horse. She’s screaming her head off and a policeman has grabbed the horse’s tail and is being dragged along the ground with the horse tearing away at top speed. Hundreds of tourists stand open-mouthed in disbelief as he flies past. He looks like a stunt rider in an old western. He isn’t hurt and I think Mark and I are the only ones who think it’s funny. It’s the most fantastic thing we’ve ever seen.
Compared to the Pyramids, the Sphinx had looked quite small from a distance but up close it’s very impressive. With the face of a king and the body of a lion, it was sculptured from the natural rock to stand guard before the Pyramid of Khafre. Why its nose is missing is not definitely known but apparently Napolean shot it off – hilarious. The beard allegedly fell off (Napoleon again?) and was pinched by the British and now sits in the museum in London. Despite losing its extremities, it’s still very beautiful.
To get up close, we must pass through the Valley Temple of Khafre which sits below and in front of the statue. After Soha explains its history the others wander off and we have some real girl-talk. She asks me, ‘how old is your husband?’. I say ‘thirty-five’, then ‘how old are you?’, I say ‘fifty’, to which she replies ‘yes, I was feeling it’. Now she says, ‘I loved a man five years younger than me but his parents wouldn’t let us marry. I say, go home to your mother. How did you get him to love you – tell me your story?’ It’s so great to talk to Soha and I wish Mark and I were on our own so we could arrange to see her again. I love hearing about her life because it’s so different from mine on the surface but deep down it’s just the same. This is what we love about travel. No matter what we look like or what we wear, believe, eat, speak, we’re all emotional beings who love and hate, are happy, sad, lonely, insecure, passionate and who want the best life we can have. We all love our parents and our children and will do anything to keep them safe and healthy. It’s so easy for us to criticise when we live so far away and be so isolated from other cultures but it’s just plain ignorance. I dare any racist to hate if they came face to face with a real person. How could anyone think Soha is a threat? She’s a vibrant, intelligent, funny woman who loves life. Our time with her has been more stimulating and inspiring than the Pyramids themselves.
Jo announces that she will go back to town in the public bus with those who don’t want to wait till one o’clock to go inside the Great Pyramid, while Soha will wait with those who do. This is obviously a surprise to Soha who thought she’s be coming back on the bus with us. Mark and I suspect that it’s a case of Jo being too lazy to stay rather than any previous arrangements. We say a reluctant goodbye to Soha and walk down to the village where a bus is waiting already.
The trip into Downtown takes an hour and we’re starving by the time we get there. We get off at Midan Tahrir and, with Jenny, Donna and Ian, quickly find a café for lunch. This is called Ali Baba’s and must be in the Lonely Planet on account of the few westerners lounging around. This includes a couple of young guys who are obviously and embarrassingly Australian. One is wearing an Akubra hat and thinks he’s okay ‘mate’. The food is good and we start to get to know each other. They all seem nice but Donna is definitely our favourite. She’s only in her early twenties but we seem to be on the same wavelength. After working in England for a couple of years, she’s travelling for a year before going back to Melbourne to live. Jenny was born in Hong Kong but now lives with her family in England. She’s the tiniest person but has a huge personality. Ian is a New Zealander and is always laughing. He seems to talk about his father and his web-site a lot which could be a problem.
Lunch over, we all walk back towards the Carlton but stop on the way at an internet café. It takes ages to find it and again it’s upstairs in an unsignposted room. The building is beautiful but, like so many in Egypt, is rundown and mostly empty. The internet room looks out onto the street and tall trees shade the window. Mark goes back out to buy us all ice-creams while Donna and Jenny and I start emailing. I finish first, so Mark and I head back to the hotel. We drink beers in the foyer and soon everyone joins us. We pass a couple of pleasant hours here before showering and packing. Our overnight train to Aswan doesn’t leave till ten o’clock tonight so we’ve got quite a few hours to fill in.
Some people wander off to do their own thing while Mark and I take Steve, Jenny, Ian and Donna around to a café area we’ve seen before. One alleyway is full of life with ahwas and cafes on both sides. We all sit at a long table outside one of the cafes and order huge amounts of food. These people eat so much! Mark and I are finished first so Mark goes into a barber shop opposite while I video him. The barber only speaks Arabic but there’s no real communication problem. He jokes around the whole time and flirts with Jenny and Donna still sitting at the table outside. Other men are being shaved while they smoke cigarettes and all are having a great time. The shave is another marathon experience with a cut-throat razor but not as long as Mark’s shave in India a few years ago. What’s different about this shave, though, is the last few minutes when the barber holds a piece of string between his fingers and his teeth and uses it to pull out the fine hairs on Mark’s cheeks.
Before going back to the Carlton, we all stop at a street market and buy cakes for the train. At 9pm we meet in the lobby and walk to the metro to catch a train to Ramses Station. On the platform everyone buys water and food for the long overnight trip to Aswan. Even at this hour, the station is packed but we have booked seats so we don’t have to worry. The train pulls out on time at ten o’clock and we settle down in our roomy comfortable seats.
Monday 17th March, 2003 Aswan
Most of us manage to sleep on and off all night thanks to our seats that lay almost right back. Mark and I also have brought our pillows which have saved us from sleepless nights on lots of trips before. From 6am nearly everyone is awake and we spend the next four and a half hours reading, sharing food and snoozing. Jenny and Ian are sitting directly behind us and there’s lots of giggling going on as well as some serious flirting. This is so cute. Ian is a loveable nerd and obviously thinks Jenny is his dream come true. We’ll cross our fingers for an Intrepid romance.
The scenery from the windows is wonderful with lush, green vegetation on the irrigated strip along the Nile and bare desert beyond. The train line follows the river for most of the way and we pass lots of dry, cement-clad villages alongside the tracks. This is Egypt as we’d expected it to be.
At ten thirty we pull into Aswan. Being Egypt’s southern most city, it’s as far as the trainline goes. The town sits on the east bank of the Nile and just north of the First Cataract. Between the east and the west bank sit two beautiful islands – Elephantine Island and Kitchener’s Island. Both are covered with palms and greenery with a backdrop of barren hills and sand on the desolate and intriguing west bank. We see all this after cramming ourselves and all our gear into a van owned by the very colourful Jay Jay. He’s a sort of Nubian Rastfarian with dreadlocks, an orange and green embroidered skullcap and long white robes. The Nubian people originated from an area between Upper Egypt south of Aswan and the Sudan. They’re a taller, darker skinned people and very attractive compared to the not-so-attractive Egyptians. By the way, Upper Egypt is the southern half of the country and Lower Egypt is the northern bit, not the other way round as everyone expects.
Jay Jay drops us at our hotel which is situated in a rutted alley and just metres from the road that runs along the Corniche. We’re staying at the Orchida Hotel which is disappointingly ‘un-Egyptian’ and very uninspiring except for its position near the bazaar. While our bags are unloaded from the van, the owners bring out welcome drinks of pink hibiscus tea. Jo then very importantly hands out the keys and dazzles us with her knowledge of Aswan (all of which we’ve already read in the guidebook). She’s nice but her confidence definitely outweighs her competence, as they say. Apparently the rest of the day is free but she doesn’t make any plans for people who are on their own. Whenever we’d have free time on other Intrepid trips the leader would say something like, ‘I’ll be going to such and such for lunch or for a drink this afternoon, so anyone who wants to come, meet here at …….’. Anyway, maybe things will get better.
As soon as we can escape, Mark and I dump our bags in our room while the others are all wasting precious time unpacking and showering. I really don’t think we’re on the same wavelength as this group. We head down to the river and walk south till we find the Egypt Air office as we want to make sure we get seats on the plane to Abu Simbel tomorrow. The other option is to leave at three thirty in the morning on a three-hour bus trip and then three hours back – no way. The bus is heaps cheaper than the $133 AUD each air tickets but we’ll pay the difference. Now we drop films off at AGFA Photos then walk along the corniche towards the Cataract Hotel. We’ll be back for drinks here tomorrow but right now we’re headed for the Nubian House Restaurant for lunch. According to Lonely Planet, it’s just behind the Basma Hotel. The problem is that it’s way, way behind the Basma Hotel – like a half-hour walk. We walk up hills and through a village and then up another hill till we think we must have missed it. We find it at last and it’s definitely been worth the effort.
Nubian House is perched on a cliff top that overlooks the Nile and Elephantine Island. It’s picture perfect with white sails of the feluccas on the bright blue waters on the river and the desert beyond. The restaurant is very Nubian with an outdoor area covered by a straw roof and sand on the floor. There are areas in the sun with floor-cushions and low tables but it’s too hot today so we sit on cane chairs in the shade. The waiters are wearing the long robes, Nubian music is playing while a few men are lounging around smoking sheeshas – great atmosphere. The food is fantastic as well – fish, chicken and salads with beer – while the service is at the usual laid-back Egyptian pace.
Because this area is so out of the way, there’s no passing transport to hail down, so it’s another long walk back to town in the heat. Nearly at the bottom, we find a taxi to drive us the rest of the way as we’re really wasting too much time walking. We’ve only got today and half of tomorrow to see Aswan so we want to get moving. The taxi drops us down at the river where we hire a boat for only $10 AUD an hour to take us to the islands. There’s not enough wind to go by felucca so we end up on a lovely motor boat with Jimmy ‘King of the Nile’.
Jimmy is gorgeous and looks like a young Eddy Murphy. He’s wearing a snow-white galabaya and his boat is just as white and immaculate. We’re the only passengers and we lounge around on purple cushions beneath plastic flowers hanging from the roof as we chug our way around Elephantine Island. From here we can see the Tombs of the Nobles and the Mausoleum of the Aga Khan which sits alone in a barren landscape on the west bank of the Nile opposite Aswan. The Mausoleum of the Aga Khan was built by his wife, the Bagum, after his death in nineteen fifty-seven. The story goes that she placed a red rose on his sarcophagus every day until her own death in two thousand.
Behind Elephantine Island is the smaller Kitchener’s Island. It was named after Horatio Kitchener who was given the island in eighteen-ninety as a reward for leading the Egyptian army to victory in the Sudan. The island is a shrine to his love of exotic plants that he had imported from all over the world. It’s now a lush haven of coconut and date palms and thousands of colourful birds. Even from the boat we can see how beautiful it is. The vegetation is so green and dense and is a stark contrast to the dry bare desert on the opposite shore of the Nile.
We pull into a small pier that’s overhanging with flowering plants. One step off the boat and I’ve bought two necklaces made from some sort of dried nuts and a wooden stringed instrument that will surely break before we get it home. I love my necklaces and wear them straight away. We can hear music and find a group of school children clapping and singing on the opposite side of the island. We wander around for a while and stop to buy ice-creams before meeting Jimmy at the other end of the island. Our boat is one of several tied up to the wharf and the whole scene looks almost too perfect to be real.
From Kitchener’s Island we now make our way to Elephantine Island. Jimmy pulls into a pier at a Nubian village which occupies one end of the island. As we walk up the stairs from the pier, we’re met by a tall, thin man wearing an afro hairdo and a long white galabaya. He introduces himself as Mohammed, the chief of the village. He offers to show us around and if we like the tour we can give him a small donation. Sounds fair and, anyway, how bloody exciting!
His house is nearby. Like all Nubian houses, it has walls about a foot thick and is made from mud and animal dung. Each room is about ten-foot by six and all have straight walls for about six feet up and then angle inward to a point at the top. This design apparently keeps them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. He shows us the colourful living room that has two raised mattresses to sit on and a blaring television set. The kitchen is very basic but we don’t get a good look as his wife is standing in the doorway and doesn’t look at all happy to see us. A set of rugged cement stairs leads to a rooftop area that has million-dollar views over the Nile and Aswan on the other side.
Mohammed walks us through the narrow alleyways between the village houses which all look much the same. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. The inside of the mosque is out of bounds but he shows us the vegetable gardens that supply the whole village. There’s no transport at all here on the island, so it’s a quiet oasis in a world of its own. Some ladies are sitting on the steps of their house and we stop to take pictures of their kids.
These people are so beautiful with gorgeous dark skin and big white smiles. We pass six little ones about five years old, all holding hands on their way to the shop. Back at Mohammed’s house, his pissed off wife has made us tea which we drink in the living room. Mohammed shows us some of the jewellery that the village women make and I feel obliged to buy a beaded necklace as well as giving him 25EP baksheesh for showing us around. $8AUD is a pittance to pay for such a great experience and even better because it was unexpected and we were on our own.
On the boat again, Jimmy takes us back to the corniche. Mark is feeling tired so while he has a rest I do some emailing in the bazaar. This is the first time I’ve been walking around without him and it’s also the first time I’ve felt really hassled. Not a great feeling so I don’t stay long. After a rest we get dressed for a night planned by Intrepid. At 6.30 we all meet in the foyer then walk down to the river. Another picturesque motor boat is waiting and we set off south along the Nile where we’ll be visiting another Nubian village. It’s dark by now, the air is warm and still and the sky is full of stars. There’s a full moon just rising and giving out enough light to see that the desert sands come right up to the water. The half-hour trip is made even better with beers all round.
As we pull into the small wharf at the village, some of the local people come down to meet us. They take us to a big Nubian house where a large extended family lives in separate areas with a communal room in the middle. The room is open to the sky and all the walls and seating areas are either whitewashed or blue painted mudbrick. Here’s where we all sit and meet some of the family including two cute little girls. Mark and Donna play with them and then they practice hairdressing with me and Donna as the victims. I have the tiniest one who’s only about three years old and she just about scalps me.
In a glass lidless box next to us are two live baby crocodiles. We get to meet the new baby and I talk to the lovely blind grandmother. Jay Jay is here and shows us the house and then we all sit on the floor for a wonderful Nubian meal cooked by the family. After dinner Mark and I sit outside and watch some of the local kids having a jam session with drums and tambourines. More people arrive and we all dance while they play and sing. It’s more like Rastafarian music than Egyptian and sounds pretty cool.
By ten o’clock we’re all tired and, since the others (except Jo and Claude, of course) have to get up at three am to go to Abu Simbel, we set off back down the Nile to Aswan.
Tuesday 18th March, 2003 Aswan to Abu Simbel to Aswan
Since everyone else has taken the bus to Abu Simbel, Mark and I are the only ones having breakfast. At eight o’clock we find a taxi down on the Corniche to take us to the airport. It’s an interesting twenty minute drive out of town past the Old Aswan Dam and finally to the airport sitting in the middle of the desert. Lots of airport security and the plane is large and full of middle aged French tourists. The women are all in short shorts and singlet tops and look like they’re off to a day at the beach rather than a sacred, religious site. The flight there is only half an hour and we see flat, sandy desert the whole way until we reach the vast, blue waters of Lake Nasser.
Lake Nasser is the artificial lake created after the damming of the Nile during the middle of the last century. The rising water level meant that many sacred monuments would be lost forever. To save them, a UNESCO-led effort moved ten of these temple complexes during the 1960’s. The main operation was here at Abu Simbel where the Temple of Hathor and the Great Temple of Ramses II were moved 210 metres above the waters at a cost of $40 million US. It’s why we’re here and why hundreds of other tourists come every day.
Outside the airport we attach ourselves to the French tour group and scab a free ride in their bus. The monuments are only a short drive through the ugly, sprawling village of Abu Simbel. The bus drops us at a touristy carpark with cultivated gardens and new-looking souvenir shops. After being constantly shoved aside by the arrogant French tourists (yes, it’s true, they are), we finally have our tickets. Again we use our ISC cards to get a half price discount of 19 EP each. Now we’re on our way around the man-made mountain. I must say, we think it looks distinctly man-made but maybe it’s just because we know it is. Around the bend and there’s Lake Nasser with the two massive temples of Abu Simbel facing the waters.
They really are fabulous but … oh God … we’re not feeling as overwhelmed as we’re supposed to. People say they’re heart stopping, and so they should be, so what’s wrong with us? I guess it’s another case of expectations being too high. Anyway, what is fabulous, is that all the other people, including the French beach babes, are sitting around with their tour leaders getting long-winded history lessons outside in the sun. There must be some sort of standard spiel as they all last for about thirty minutes. This means that Mark and I have the two temples entirely to ourselves.
The biggest and most impressive is the Great Temple of Ramses II. Carved out of the mountain around 1200BC, its façade consists of four giant statues of Ramses himself. This was supposedly to scare the pants off anyone coming up this way from the Sudan. Inside is a large hall held up by eight huge columns and decorated with war scenes won by Ramses, apparently almost single-handedly. Cut even further into the mountain is a sacred sanctuary that holds four statues of the gods of the Great Temple. The interior is cool after the heat outside and it’s so peaceful to be here on our own.
We also have the Temple of Hathor to ourselves while the French crew are still being bored to death outside – serve them right, we say. The frontage of the temple has six ten-metre high statues cut into the rockface. Four are of Ramses (obviously an egomaniac) and two of his wife, Nefertari. The inner hypostle hall has small antechambers leading off it and again all decorated with pictures of Ramses doing more heroic deeds. Just as we leave we see all the tour groups heading for the Great Temple.
To pass the time while we wait for the airport bus, we walk around the lake and sit with some of the guards under the trees. They’ve all got machine guns but most of them are climbing trees – must be bored. Further around we sit with another guard who tells us about his family. He must be bored as well as he’s been passing the time stripping branches off the tree. From here we wander around the souvenir shops and drink tea sitting on the grass. Near the ticket gate is an exhibition hall where we watch a film showing how the UNESCO team moved the two temples. It’s amazing stuff.
At last the buses arrive and we’re back on the plane heading towards Aswan. The plane is packed and half full of a group of people wearing all-white clothes. When I ask one woman about it she says ‘why not?’ – smart-arsed, Yankee, religious dickheads!! The flight back is good until the last ten minutes when we’re rocked all over the place with turbulence. No-one is talking and there’s white knuckles all round. Maybe the religious nuts will come in handy and they’re praying their heads off. As we land, the whole plane applaudes! The Egyptian guy next to me shrugs and says ‘Egyptian flying’ then laughs – hilarious!
So glad to get the hell out of there and soon we’re speeding back to town and straight to the Old Cataract Hotel. After that plane ride we need a drink, fast. The Old Cataract Hotel is where Agatha Christie wrote ‘Death on the Nile’ and, being her biggest fan, it holds a special attraction for me. The setting is magical with its old-world charm and wonderful views of the Nile and Elephantine Island.
Through tall gates, a path leads us through the gardens in front to enter the wonderful atmosphere of the foyer. The hotel is Moorish style and its original state is beautifully retained. We’ve been in beautiful old hotels in heaps of countries but this is incomparably the best.
Out on the wide terrace the mood is just as perfect. We’re lucky to get a table right on the edge of the balcony on the corner closest to the Nile. It’s the best seat in the house with a view of the river that no postcard could beat. This is where Agatha Christie would have sat because she used the terrace as one of the main scenes of her book – I’m so excited I could bust. Mark does and lets one loose in this scared place – disgusting. Afternoon tea is chicken tandoori and salmon with cold Stellar beers – a perfect afternoon except for the fart.
After a rest in our room, we meet Ian and Steve downstairs in the dining room for a beer before joining the others on the roof. Tonight we’re having an Egyptian banquet and being entertained by local dancers. First is the belly dancer. She’s got the belly but that’s about it. She’s so bad we think she must be the hotel owner’s daughter. Mark gets up to dance with her and he looks very authentic in his galabaya. Next is a whirling dervisher and some men inside a fake horse. Last are a bunch of Nubian musicians who sound the same as the guys from last night. We all get up again and do the walking in a circle/clapping thing. Definitely have had enough but they’re so passionate we don’t have the heart to sit one out. The food is good with lots of salads, kofta (spicy ground meat on skewers), chicken and soup but it’s all too touristy and we’re glad to get to bed at 10.30.
Wednesday 19th March, 2003 Aswan to Feluccas on the Nile
Today we’re leaving Aswan on a felucca, one of the traditional, Egyptian boats with canvas sails that we’ve seen in all the travel brochures. Bigger and very luxurious boats do the same trip but this way is much more adventurous and we’ll get a better feel for the river. We’ll spend three glorious days sailing up the Nile to Luxor stopping at different monuments on the way and sleeping on the boat at night. There’s no news about the USA attacking Iraq yet so hopefully once we’re on the boat we’ll get in a few more days even if Intrepid do have to cancel the tour. The felucca trip is the main reason for choosing this particular tour in the first place so at least we’ll have had this great experience.
Mark and I are up early to have breakfast in the hotel dining room and then off to Thomas Cook to change traveller’s cheques. In the bazaar we buy a few belly dancing scarves and drink tea with the owner of the stall. It’s still early and most stalls are just opening. Through an open doorway we watch breadmakers cooking a’aish until they see us and invite us inside. There’s lots of joking and laughing and as we leave they’re stuffing warm bread inside Mark’s backpack. It’s covered in flour which means that the backpack is as well. At a nearby shop that’s blaring out Egyptian music, Mark barters hard and gets three cotton shirts incredibly cheap. We end up donating our bread to the owner.
We’re running late and race back to the hotel to shower and pack. All of us meet in the foyer and walk down to the river. Jay Jay is there to meet us and introduce us to our Nubian boatmen – Dari and Mohammed. They’re both gorgeous and so sweet. Our boat has a flat deck about ten feet square with a place about two foot high underneath for our bags. Thick mattresses covered in a colourful cloth cover the whole deck and pillows are lined up all around the sides. There’s plenty of room for us all to lie down and Mark and I pick good spots right up the front of the boat. We’re very comfortable and it’s heaven to lie here with a cloudless blue sky above. Yesterday, Jo had taken orders for water and beer for the three days so a few of us start drinking Stellas now – feeling relaxed already.
As we pull out at 10.30 we watch beautiful Aswan slide by and then it’s date palms, tiny houses and donkeys for the rest of the day. The boat tacks continually against the oncoming breeze so that it takes ages to get very far at all. All day we pass the huge cruise boats heading towards Aswan and feel glad that we’re here on our little felucca. We pull in a few times for toilet stops which are always an adventure as we all try to find some privacy. No matter where you go you’re always sure that someone, somewhere is getting an eyeful of your bare arse. At one place we decide to find firewood for tonight. Mark and the other guys have a wonderful time doing the male thing of dragging dead branches off trees and even dismantling an old shed. Lunch happens on the go and Dari sails while Mohammed gets the food ready. They spread out an old plastic cloth and put the dishes in the centre while we all help ourselves. It’s one of my favourite meals – tuna, pocket bread, tomato and fetta cheese followed by fruit and tea.
All afternoon we float slowly down the Nile while we listen to old Bob Marley tapes – so fitting and so perfect. It seems universal that the coolest places on earth still play Bob Marley. His music recalls nights in dark bars in Kathmandu, at beach bars in Bali and now a felucca cruise on the Nile. Meanwhile, the Jenny/Ian romance is coming along nicely. They lie next to each other and have whispered conversations under the blanket.
As dark falls about six o’clock, Mark has a turn on the rudder. He looks wonderful with a gorgeous sunset over the water behind him. He loves this and it lets Dari and Mohammed get the food ready for tea. Dinner is a stewy thing of chopped sausages, tomatoes and onions with bread and is just as good as lunch. Afterwards Mark helps put the canvas roof and sides on the boat and we all put the toilet together on the bank. This involves digging a deep hole and putting up a canvas screen all around. Every time we get back on board, we have to wash our hands in disinfectant whether we’ve been to the loo or not. Glad to see very strict cleanliness rules on the boat and the guys keep it immaculate at all times.
After dinner we all start drinking. It’s quite cool as the sun goes down but we feel very snug inside our canvas shelter. Some sit around the fire on the bank and some of us just lay around inside. We’re incredibly cosy and warm under a mountain of blankets and all sleep surprisingly well.
Thursday 20th March, 2003 The Nile (on feluccas)
Mark and I wake before the others at seven o’clock, and after toilet visits and cleaning our teeth, we sit on the bank of the river. I make myself more presentable with a bit of makeup and combed hair. No need to look glamorous but also no need to look like a hag. Gradually the rest of the crew wakes and Mohammed and Dari take down the sides before starting breakfast. This morning we have pancakes, bananas, rolls, jam and cheese. Jo has received a call to give us the bad, but not unexpected, news that the Americans have bombed Baghdad during the night. What this will mean for our trip, only time will tell. What it means for the Iraqi people, we hate to think.
Jo and Claude are really starting to piss us off doing the mobile phone crouch – you know, forever hunched over their phones – I mean, who the fuck are they talking to or text-messaging or whatever else you do with the goddam things? I feel like chucking them overboard – the women first.
Anyway, glad to set sail early. It’s warmer on the river today and we spend a few pleasant hours making our way north. Later we stop on the east bank where a jeep is waiting to take us to Daraw and the local camel market. At Daraw village we get out at the busy outdoor marketplace. This is thriving and reminds us of India. We dodge donkey-drawn carts laden with vegetables and people riding bareback on donkeys. Mark and I buy a big bag of strawberries to share while we pick up lots of other fresh vegies for the boat. I get the best buy of the trip from a pretty young girl who sells me a brown and cream rug for 22EP. A further ten minutes drive takes us to the camel market. Although there’s still lots of camels in pens, the selling is over for the day. It’s a real fizzer after our awesome experience at Birqash which we’re secretly smug about.
Instead of driving back to the felucca, we drive for about an hour north to the town of Kom Ombo. Here we’ll pick up the boat after visiting the famous Temple of Kom Ombo. The temple sits impressively on a bend on the east bank of the Nile where it looks out over the waters. It has an interesting hypostyle hall and some mummified crocodiles.
Mark and I aren’t impressed when Jo takes over as guide. The etiquette in Egypt is to use Egyptian guides only – Intrepid would know this and so would she. Even when she gets chatted about it she pretends not to care and just ignores them. She’s such an embarrassment so we keep away from her and do our own thing. Outside we all walk along the river to where the felucca is moored up to a grassy bank about a kilometre away. Mark and I stop at two cafes to use the toilets but they’re unbelievably filthy. None of them flush but have obviously still been used for more than just number ones, if you get the picture. Think we’ll hold on.
While we wait for everyone to get back to the boat, some kids wade out to try to sell us the inevitable beaded necklaces and bracelets. Incredible how cheap they’ll go down to when you don’t want them. The sun is hot by now so it’s good to get back out into the middle of the river where we can catch the breeze. Lunch today is spaghetti, a tomato and onion dish, pita bread and oranges. Later we pull into shore for a toilet stop and for Jo and Claude to go for a swim. They’re such show-ponies. All the guidebooks recommend not even putting your big toe in the Nile for fear of getting the dreaded Bilharzia disease. This is carried by tiny worms that dig their way into the skin and grab onto your bladder and bowels and make you extremely sick – we can only hope.
There’s untold donkeys around here and one is going ape-shit try to rape all the girl donkeys. A guy is chasing it with a stick and screaming his head off while the donkey is running in circles and screaming it’s head off – hilarious. The rest of the afternoon is spent reading and snoozing as we sail on towards Luxor. On dusk we stop to collect firewood then sail for an hour after the sun has set. This is incredibly beautiful and peaceful and my favourite part of the boat trip so far.
Setting up for the night is quicker today as Mark and the other guys help Dari tie up the sails and put the roof and sides on. The toilet is erected on the bank while Mohammed cooks dinner – vegetable soup, vegetable stew, bread and more oranges. Tonight we drink lots of alcohol and lie around telling conundrums for hours. A really good day rounded off with a great evening. Another warm, comfortable night on board.
Friday 21st March, 2003 Nile to Edfu to Luxor
Like yesterday, Mark and I are the first to arise and we enjoy a peaceful hour sitting on the bank. Lots of agriculture around here and, of course, lots of donkeys. Mark says ‘there’s a line-up at the dunny’ and there’s three of them checking it out.
Mohammed has lathered up for a wash on the grass and he’s covered in white suds from head to toe. Dari is cleaning the boat as usual and by eight o’clock everyone is up and ready to go. Breakfast is cooked while we slowly tack to the opposite bank. Mark takes the rudder and, I know, would love to be there all day. I think he’s had enough relaxing and we both can’t wait to get to Luxor this afternoon. This morning we have pancakes again with eggs, bread, bananas and oranges. Every meal has been just right.
Today is warm and not much breeze so it’s nice out on the river. After a couple of hours, we pull into the west bank where we say a final goodbye to Dari and Mohammed and our felucca. It’s been a memorable few days and we’re so glad we opted to travel down the Nile this traditional way. As we pack up, Mark and I find that we’ve lost our pillow bag that we’d bought in India – must have gone overboard.
We’ve stopped at the edge of a small village and a van is waiting to take us to Edfu. A nearby open-air ahwa looks wonderful and the men are smiling and all want their photos taken – no baksheesh either. I like it here and wish we could stay. That’s the limitations of being on a tour.
For the next hour an a half we drive through lush, palm-filled villages along the Nile then scorched, barren land further inland. We love it all. At Edfu we drive straight to the wonderfully preserved Temple of Horus. Outside is a tourist bazaar but we don’t have time to hang out here as we have to leave in a convoy at 11.30am. Again we use our student cards to get in for only 10EP. The temple was built over a period of two hundred years and finally completed in 57BC by Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII. The entrance though the thirty-six metre high pylons is especially impressive and inside are two hypostyle halls, an offering chamber and the great court. We feel dwarfed by the massive collumns in the hypostyle halls which I think are the most stunning parts of all the Egyptian temples.
It’s time to go and we set off in a convoy of about half a dozen buses and vans. For security reasons, tourists aren’t allowed to go wandering around out here on their own so police escorts lead convoys across the desert each day. It’s another interesting hour and a half to the town of Luxor which sits on the East Bank of the Nile. Once the ancient city of Thebes, Luxor today is a mixture of modern and old and is one of Egypt’s most popular tourist destinations. Guidebooks describe it as the world’s biggest open-air museum and we’ll spend the next two days discovering it all.
Our hotel is The Little Garden Hotel and is a big improvement on the Orchida in Aswan. The rooms are clean and modern with private courtyards and big bathrooms but where’s the atmosphere, we say? Another pitfall of being on a tour – you don’t get to pick where you stay and we would have found something more ‘Egyptian’ if we were on our own. No big deal though. After Jo gives us the rundown on our plans for today and tomorrow, we have a quick shower and we’re out in the street. The hotel is in a back alleyway and we walk down to Sharia Televizyon where we find a cute café for lunch and for e-mailing home. It’s so good to be by ourselves and do our own thing for the afternoon.
One of the main attractions of Luxor is the temples in the village of Karnak a few kilometres north. The best way to get there is by hantour (a horse and carriage) and we stop one in the street outside the café. Our driver is Mohammed, a handsome Arab who plays loud Egyptian music from a tape deck along the way – adds to the atmosphere and we sing along. The trip to Karnak is so pleasant as we clipclop our way through the warm afternoon sunshine.
As we draw closer, we can see untold buses and thousands of tourists. This is the most we’ve seen anywhere in Egypt so far. The temple complex is huge, though, and after we all walk through the avenue of sphinxes everyone spreads out to explore the one and a half kilometre site. Inside is the main Temple of Amun which has it’s own Sacred Lake.
Everything is on a grand scale here and so huge that it’s almost impossible to get photos that can take it all in. We do get wonderful pictures inside the hypostyle hall of some of the one hundred and thirty four soaring stone pillars. This is the most spectacular of sights especially at this late time of day as the sun slants through the collumns to create an almost surreal spectacle. Despite the large number of tourists, Karnak is a magical experience.
Mohammed meets us in the hantour ‘parking lot’ and off we go again along the corniche back to Luxor. The music is especially groovy now and Mark and I sing and chairdance our way back to town. This is a wonderful afternoon. Mohammed drops us off at the Luxor Temple which is near the Old Winter Palace Hotel and our real destination. A bit ‘monumented’ out today so we’ll maybe see the temple tomorrow. Now we’re after a drink and something to eat. Apparently the thing to do is to sit on the terrace of the Winter Palace and watch the sun setting over the Nile. Can’t think of anything nicer.
Firstly we walk through the hotel which is a romantic, Victorian beauty on the bank of the river. Inside is palace-like and so serene we feel we have to whisper and tiptoe around. We check out the huge and elaborate sitting room that has views of the gardens and I use the gorgeous old loo. A nice man in uniform tells us that we can’t drink in the bar as Mark is wearing thongs so we go back to the terrace. A lady sitting at a table nearby comes to talk to us and asks if we’re French – we wish! She must have missed the thongs. Nice to think we must look a bit sophisticated anyway. We drink beers and eat peanuts while we watch the sun setting across the Nile.
Dark now, we walk away from the river to Television Street to look for the Lonely Planet recommended Mish Mish Café. The food is good which we eat while a television gives continual coverage of the war in Iraq. We’re totally against it but feel guilty anyway. We don’t stay long and wander around some backstreets instead. At an interesting ahwa we stop for teas and a sheesha all for 5EP or $1.60 AUD. We forget to order a molasses sheesha and end up with tobacco which gives us both headspins.
Back at the Little Garden, we decide to have drinks on the rooftop café. We’re the only ones here and we love it – it’s a great find – very Egyptian and we lay around on floor cushions smoking grape sheeshas and drinking our duty free Bacardi and Jim Beam. Bob Marley music is playing from behind the bar so we’re extra, extra happy. A great day and looking forward to an even better day tomorrow in the Valley of the Kings.
Saturday 22nd March, 2003 Luxor to The Valley of the Kings to Luxor
It’s not a good idea to drink too much when you’ve got a big day ahead. Luckily we haven’t got hangovers but last night in our drunken stupor, we forgot to set the alarm so we didn’t wake till 6.45am. We’ve only got fifteen minutes to get ready and meet the others outside at 7am. Breakfast is the quickest ever then we all walk down to the Corniche. Here we meet Ahmed who is to be our guide for today. One of the small, attractive motorboats, funnily called ‘lunches’, is waiting to take us across the Nile to the West Bank. Today is glorious – clear blue skies, calm waters and high temperatures. As we cross the river the difference in the two sides is glaringly obvious. On the East Bank is Luxor itself which looks superb with Luxor Temple extending along the shoreline and cruise ships lined up alongside. The West Bank is starkly different with parched, desolate mountains behind colourful villages and greenery along the river.
On shore, we’re taken to a dusty patch of ground where the donkeys are waiting. The owners choose a donkey for each of us each, I think according to how fat each person is. They all take off one by one while Mark is still sitting there on his own. His donkey is either lazy or just hates Mark. Donkeys have the shortest legs and it’s the funniest sight as we all bob our way through the village. Ross is even taller than Mark and both of them are almost scraping the ground with their feet. The donkeys have a pecking order and they gradually sort themselves out in the line. Poor Mark has the slowest donkey and he spends the whole time at the back of the pack. We’re on a busy road now and, I swear, Carolyn comes within inches of being hit by a car when her crazy donkey decides to overtake. She’s so spooked and isn’t at all happy.
I’m suddenly horrified to be getting the dreaded runs and have no idea where there could possibly be a loo around here. So relieved (a good pun) to arrive at the Colossi of Memnon and find a mobile toilet nearby. We ‘park’ our donkeys under the trees and check out the statues. These eighteen metre high monuments stand alone in a flat field although they were once part of a huge funery temple that’s all but disappeared. Across the road is a small market where I buy a white hat for the long, hot ride ahead of us. While we’re standing around waiting to leave, one of the donkeys goes beserk, tearing around the carpark like a crazed lunatic until one of the Egyptian guys whacks it to its senses. This is the second time we’ve seen a donkey do this in about three days – not sure if they’re all nuts or just oversexed. It also doesn’t instill a lot of confidence in us virgin riders
From here we ride around the outskirts of a village then start to make our way up one of the old trails that lead over the barren mountains to the Valley of the Kings. This is absolutely thrilling and nerve-wracking at the same time. As we climb higher and higher we’re on narrow trails that have sheer, terrifying drops only metres away. Mark has no confidence in his donkey and gets off and leads it along the scariest parts.
‘Claude, of course, is at the front and looking every bit ‘the Indian princess’ she calls herself and believes she is – no exaggeration. It’s a hot ride over the mountains but breathtakingly beautiful and one of those magical experiences that can never be taken away. When my use-by date is almost up and I’m lying bored and useless in an old people’s home, I’ll know I’ll have these fantastic memories to keep me from going totally mad.
Coming down into the Valley of the Kings is amazing. We catch our first glimpse of it as we make our way along the top ridge. It’s like a deep canyon surrounded by dry, rocky mountains – its emptiness is awesome. About halfway down, the path becomes too steep for the donkeys so we leave them here and walk the rest of the way. We meet Ahmed and Jo at the bottom. She’d had some lame excuse for opting out of the ride – lazy cow, Mark says again. At least here Ahmed is our guide and we don’t have to listen to her big-noting herself.
I must say that while Jo has been pissing us off at times, she’s basically okay and no-one has a real problem with her. On the other hand, Claude is a major tosser. She’s definitely got a huge ego problem and even though she’ll talk to you all day it’s always about herself. She brags incessantly about everything she’s ever done and has a self-confidence the size of Texas. Good on her, I should be thinking – but don’t. What bugs everyone is that she’s been in Egypt for less time that the rest of us but she’s still acting the expert and even taking over from Jo. ‘Once a leader, always a leader’ she announces making us all want to throw up. Her best asset is that we all can’t stand her so we’ve become much closer as a group in our loathing of her – yes, loathing. We now have a common enemy to bind us together. Donna hates her the most so she is our ‘best-est’ friend – childish but fun!
Ahmed leads us to the first tomb and gives us a short history lesson while we try to find some shade. Inside is a long passageway that leads to inner chambers all covered in paintings amazingly well preserved. The next tomb (can’t remember the names of any of them) is a short, hot walk through a steep-sided canyon. This valley is so incredibly dry and beautiful and so different to anything we’ve ever seen. We climb a steep ladder to the entrance to the tomb which is halfway up the side of the hill. We have to wait our turn going down inside as we’ve struck a large tour group. The tomb is hot and stuffy but magnificent. The third tomb is much the same but we’re glad we don’t have to see all sixty-two here in the Valley of the Kings.
What we do want to see, and what we’ve paid the extra 40EP entrance fee for, is the Tomb of Tutankhamun. This is famous as the only tomb to be discovered with all its treasures still intact. It wasn’t one of the biggest or the richest but all the others had been stripped by robbers over the centuries. In 1922 an English Egyptologist called Howard Carter discovered Tutankharmun’s tomb still unopened. After six years of searching in the wrong place, it was finally found when water from a jug disappeared so quickly into the earth that he knew there must be a hollow chamber beneath. The tomb contained three rooms crammed with priceless treasures including two golden sarcophagi and a solid gold death mask. Everything was packed up and sent off to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo which we’ll see when we get back there next week. All that’s left is the outer, wooden coffin with Tutankharmun’s mummified body inside. It’s not too moving or spectacular but I’ve always wanted to see it for myself.
Now we can either get back on the donkeys or catch a kiddie train to get out of this part of the Valley. Carolyn is still having donkey nightmares, Donna’s donkeyed-out after doing the same thing here last year and Mark and I are just plain cowards. With Jo and Ahmed, we catch a truck, with colourful pictures painted all over it, to another area of the Valley of the Kings, called Deir Al-Bahri. We’re here to see the Tomb of Queen Hatchepsut and it’s another spectacular sight that awaits us. The temple sits at the base of a limestone cliff hundreds of metres high and is partly carved out of the mountain itself. There’s a small market at the entrance and we buy a green scarf and talk to the stall owners while we wait for the others to come over the mountain. We soon see them as tiny specks way above us. It really looks amazing.
When we’re all together we follow Ahmed up to the temple where he explains all the reliefs and statues inside. Hatchepsut’s father was a king of ancient Egypt and she became regent when he and her older half-brother, who she’d married, both died – very complicated. She’s usually portrayed wearing a false beard so she probably had a hard time of it being a female pharaoh. Excavation work is still being carried out here to uncover the innermost chambers but the terraces, ramps, colonnades and chapels are fabulous enough.
From here we all pile into the truck and drive to the nearby village to visit an alabaster factory. The alabaster is mined about eighty kilometres north of here and everything is made by hand. After watching different stages of the process we check out the work for sale and buy a green vase for 100EP after some fierce bargaining. It’s very fragile so we’ll have to pack it carefully.
By now it’s time to eat so it’s back in the truck and on to Ahmed’s house for lunch. This is in another village close to the river. His house is down a pot-holed, dirt laneway where lots of kids are playing. The house is a big cement block with two floors and painted bright blue. It’s attractive and, at last, very ‘Egyptian’. Ahmed lives here with his wife, his mother, his brother and sister-in-law and their six children. Inside is a big bare open room with blue cement walls and tiny windows, probably to keep out the heat. This means that fluorescent lights are needed even in the middle of the day. On one side of the room are three wooden benches with straight backs and on the other side is a big low wooden table with floor cushions all around. After leaving our shoes outside and washing our hands we all sit on the floor at the table and wait for the feast.
This really is a feast and for the next half an hour the family brings out more and more food. There’s eggplant, a’aish, lentil soup, chicken, rice, a potato and tomato dish, fried potato pancakes, hibiscus tea and a sweet Egyptian dessert. We round it off by drinking tea while sitting on the wooden lounges. Ahmed shows us silver cartouches made by his friends, so we order one for each of us and one each for the girls with our names spelt out in hieroglyphics.
Outside we have photos taken with some of the kids before leaving Ahmed and his family. We now head back to the river to pick up the boat to take us back to the east bank.
From here we all walk to the bazaar then split up to do some shopping. The vendors in Luxor have a reputation as being especially aggressive and this is no overstatement. Most of them are total arseholes and become nasty if we don’t look inside their shop. We haggle one guy down to get two rugs extremely cheap and he isn’t at all happy. Glad to escape from here and we head back towards the corniche. Here we come across the Luxor Hotel – a great find and so very ‘Egyptian’ – we would have definitely stayed here if we’d been on our own. The garden in front is overgrown and partly shaded with bamboo shelters and big trees. We sit at a cane table and chairs and drink beers while soaking up the laid-back atmosphere.
Before going back to the hotel we call in at a small supermarket to buy food for the long bus trip to Hurghada tomorrow. At the Little Garden we bathe and have a nap before meeting Jo at seven o’clock to go out for dinner. We decide instead to go back upstairs on our own. Just the two of us – food, sheeshas, Bob Marley, bourbon and Bacardi.
Sunday 23rd March, 2003 Luxor to Hurghada
We don’t wake till 8am after ten hours sleep. A less exciting day ahead of us today as we’ll be spending six hours on a bus to the town of Hurghada on the Red Sea. Everyone has a leisurely breakfast in the courtyard before cramming ourselves and our gear into a minivan to take us to the bus stop. We hang around outside after grabbing the front seats. A beautiful clear blue sky this morning and lovely and hot in the sun.
The bus pulls out at ten thirty and within no time we’re out of Luxor and into the desert. Our front seats give us great views especially as the driver’s seat is way down below us. Other than that our seats don’t turn out to be much of a bonus as the driver and his mate smoke the whole way and play loud Arabic music. They also show a couple of B-grade movies like ‘The Merchant of Death’ which is so bad it’s good. A couple of times we pull over to the side of the road while a few Egyptian passengers as well as the driver and the conductor, get out to pick sugarcane. They proceed to strip it and chew on it for ages – must have teeth like camels.
One of the things I always like about long bus trips in the desert is the truck and bus stops out in the middle of nowhere. We stop twice on the way to Hurghada for toilet and tea breaks at a couple of lonely cafes. Here Jo and Claude stuff as many cigarettes as they can into their lungs and just throw them on the ground when they’re finished. I swear, we’re leaving a trail of butts all over Egypt.
At four thirty we can see the water and arrive in Hurghada soon after. What a dump! It’s an ugly touristy town straggling along the Red Sea coast and we’re glad we’re only here for the night. We’re actually staying at Ad Dahar which is a bit further north but just as unappealing. The Queen Hotel is also a dump. Our room is big but the curtains are literally in shreds and the bathroom looks totally suspect. Besides this an annoying Belgium tourist is hanging around the owners like a bad smell. At first we think he works here but then we all realise he’s just a pain-in-the-arse.
After dumping our bags, Mark and I walk around town and eat pizza before having a lie down. We meet Jo and the others at six thirty in the foyer and we all walk down to the main street for dinner. This is at the Red Sea Restaurant – food is expensive but worth it. Afterwards some of us have drinks at Pappas Bar a few streets away. This is the most touristy, westernised place we’ve seen anywhere in Egypt so far. It’s a good atmosphere anyway but we don’t stay long and we’re back in bed by ten thirty. We’ve an early start in the morning to catch the ferry but those bitches (Jo and Claude – who else) are partying with the owners in the foyer all night. Can’t wait to dob them in when we give Intrepid our feedback. Good to know that we’re not the only ones getting pissed off as the others are ready to spit the dummy as well.
Monday 24th March, 2003 Hurghada to Nuweiba
Up at 4am and into a minivan to catch the five-thirty ferry. For some reason the annoying Belgium comes for the ride to the wharf – ‘get a life’, we all say. The ferry is big, modern and comfortable and is not at all the horror ride it had been for the group last week. The sea had been so rough that they’d all been seasick. Today it’s calm as a millpond and we sleep the one and a half-hours to Sharm el-Sheikh. This is a treeless town on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aqaba which is famous for it’s beautiful undersea world. Again we pile into a minivan and head north towards Nuweiba. This two and a half-hour drive is not at all boring like I thought it might be. Spectacular bare mountains the whole way and glimpses of Bedouin camps. Bedouin means ‘desert dwellers’ and many of these people still live a nomadic lifestyle breeding sheep, goats and camels. We stop at a Bedouin tent along the roadside where a sick camel is standing nearby. We sit in the shade of the goatskin tent which is very ‘Bedouin’ – colourful floor cushions to lay on, sheeshas and tassles hanging from the roof. After drinking tea we buy a couple of crystalline rocks collected from around here as keepsakes. Except for the poor camel, this is another of those really great travel experiences.
We surge on now to Nuweiba which is about two hundred kilometres north of Sharm el-Sheikh and still on the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. It’s also popular for its diving and snorkelling and once attracted a young hippie crowd mainly from Israel. Now, because of the travel warnings for Israelis over the last few years, this place is like a ghost-town. For several kilometres along the coastline of the curved bay are backpacker ‘resorts’ which would have been wonderful a few years ago but are now completely deserted. That is except for Sababa Camp which is where, for some unknown reason, Intrepid has decided to stay.
The camp consists of a big communal area with small thatched huts spread out around a grassless yard. We like the look of the communal bit with its low tables and floor cushions. It also has a thatched roof and is open to the beach. We’re given a hut each which is basic to say the least – a mattress on the floor, a mosquito net and a key. The resort in only metres from the shoreline where you can ‘chill out’ on hammocks and mattresses and Saudi Arabia is just a stone’s throw across the water – thrilling.
Despite the weather being cool and now windy, Mark and I decide to go for a walk. Although we’re the only tourists staying within cooee of the place, the market stalls are still open – forever hopeful, I guess. We stop to look at Bedouin rugs and have fun bartering with three local guys. For some reason, I’ve been doing all the bartering here. Mark has always been best at it before but I think because all the stall-owners in Egypt are men, it’s easier to get around them if you’re female. The guys here love us when we buy a rug, two blankets and two pillowcases for 250EP. After wandering around for an hour we head back for lunch. This is amazingly good considering how remote we are and that we’re the only people staying here. A handsome guy called Salama is our host and he lives here at Sababa Camp. Even though he only gets the Intrepid groups coming through, he stays open because, as he says, ‘there’s nowhere else to go’. No-one will buy these places so they’re all still open. Lauren said it’s the same in Bali. After the bombing of the Sari Club last October, the tourists are staying away in droves but nothing has closed. I don’t know how long either place can hang on, though.
Lunch is African chicken, tuna salad and spaghetti bolognese then we sleep in our hut till three thirty. About five, we walk back down to the market – much nicer now the wind has gone. This time we buy two long bedouin poncho sort of things, a brass vase and teapot (220EP). Such lovely people here – no hassling and lots of laughing.
Back to camp to sit around the fire with the others. Our ponchos keep us warm and we feel very ‘Bedouin’. Dinner is pizza, fish, and beer and then we all share a sheesha. Bed at ten o’clock but kept awake for ages by a tiny mouse doing laps around the inside of our hut.
Tuesday 25th March, 2003 Nuweiba
This morning is beautifully sunny with no wind. With Ian and Donna, we eat breakfast of spanish omelets laying on cushions next to the water. Salama lets me email home from his hut while Mark confirms our flights home with Gulf Air. We find that the times have changed as well as our flights. Because of the war in Iraq, we can’t fly into Bahrain and will now have to go to Muscat in Oman. This is no problem with us and we find it exciting instead. The rest of the morning we lie around reading and talking till we jump in a van at eleven o’clock to take us to our camel safari. This is a half-hour drive north along the coast and then we turn inland to stop at the entrance to a canyon. We each have a camel and a camel wallah to lead us. This is a much more comfortable ride than our Indian camel experience but it’s still painful. Camels are such disgusting creatures. Mine keeps blowing it’s tongue up about the size of a football and hanging it out the side of it’s mouth and making loud bubbling noises – revolting. Poor Mark has a slow camel and gets stuck up the back of the line again. He has the worst luck with animals.
As we make our way through the canyon, the sight of the camels and the camel wallahs walking before us in their long robes is, quite frankly, beautiful. I can’t believe that we’re here, riding camels in the Sinai – not your everyday occurrence. The wind is so strong in parts but we’re protected in other areas. The scenery is spectacular – so barren and remote. In some narrow sections we have to get off and lead the camels through which at least gives our bums a rest. We stop for a break in the sun which is so hot when we’re out of the wind. After a couple of hours we have lunch that the camel guys make over open fires. While they’re getting it ready some of us go for a walk to an oasis about twenty minutes away. Lunch could truly be the best meal I’ve ever had. They make a vegetable and bean stew from scratch plus a tuna salad and cook a’aish over the coals and finish with tea.The noonday sun has passed by now and because we’re in a canyon the sun disappears quickly behind the cliffs. It’s so cold so it’s back on the camels for another two hours to reach the van. Frozen by the time we make it back to Sababa Camp but warm up around the fire. Tonight Salama makes hot sahlab over the open fire. This is a warm custardy drink/dessert with sultanas and nuts on the top. It is the best thing I’ve ever tasted – again. Dinner is garlic calamari and tuna salad – getting obsessed with the tuna salads here. We have a sheesha again after dinner and lots of beers. I go to bed because I’ve had enough of Claude’s bragging but Mark stays up till midnight. Our pet mouse is running around the room again all night and this time dragging a chocolate wrapper just to be extra noisy.
Wednesday 26th March, 2003 Nuweiba to Catherine
Wake at 8am to a sunny, still day and have breakfast on the cushions near the water. Mark, Carolyn and Steve have decided to go snorkeling but it’s too cold for the rest of us. Mark and I walk along the beach to the dive shop for him to pick up his snorkeling gear. I make a snap decision and get fitted for flippers, a mask and snorkel, as well. This is probably the only time I’ll get to swim in the Red Sea, so lets go!
The four of us get into a jeep with the maddest driver ever. Don’t know if he’s stupid or drunk but he’s literally driving all over the road and I keep screaming at him to move over. It’s a terrifying ride and he blames the car’s steering when we stop. I tell the driver of the other jeep to get a new jeep and a new driver to take us back. We’ve driven ten kilometres to Devils Cove which is a rocky beach lined with deserted grass huts. A few Bedouin women and children come to sell us jewellery and I feel so sorry for them that I buy two necklaces and a bangle that I don’t even want.
Now it’s time to get into the wet-suits. Mark is stuffing me into mine while I can’t stop laughing. It takes ages but finally I’m in. I feel like a fat seal. It’s the first time I’ve ever been in a wet-suit and I’m amazed how warm I am. We swim out to the edge of the reef and I see the most wonderful sight I’ve ever seen – like being in a giant fishbowl. The water is so clear and deep blue with fish of the brightest colours swimming past us. We hold hands the whole time and this is the most romantic of all things. I cannot believe this experience and to think I was going to miss out because I was cold. So many learning experiences come out of travelling. I know I’m getting braver as I get older and want to experience everything.
Back at Sababa Camp we shower and pack then have lunch with Salama at the big cane table. This place has been great but Mark and I are always glad to be moving on. At 12.30 we leave for Catherine and it’s another enjoyable two-hour drive through the Sinai. At Catherine we stop at Moonlands which is where we’ll stay tonight. It’s characterless but then so is the whole town which exists only because of its proximity to Mt Sinai and St Catherine’s Monastery.
Within minutes we’re all back in the van for the short drive to St Catherine’s. Ever since I saw a photo of the monastery in a travel magazine a few years ago I’ve wanted to see it and it’s one of the main reasons for wanting to come to the Sinai. The other is to see sunset at the top of Mt Sinai which is what we’re about to do.
Mount Sinai is most famous as the place where God apparently gave Moses the Ten Commandments at the top of the mountain. Since we’re not Christians, it doesn’t have a special significance for us but it’ll be a great experience anyway. The van drops all of us a few hundred metres from the monastery which is obviously a major tourist attraction going on the amount of people here. We walk on past and start the long climb up the mountain.
Unfortunately, Jo had her foot jammed in the door of a jeep at Nuweiba and so Claude has been put in charge of us children. Like, she’s never been here before either but who would know it? Off she strides with us tagging along. She’s a sight to behold, now like an Egyptian princess, maybe. She’s also wearing high-heels and smoking the whole way – such a great example, I must say.
Anyway, forget her. We let her get far ahead, mainly because I’m so slow. After walking for an hour I decide to hitch a lift with a camel for the remainder of the camel path. This is the most comfortable of camels and the ride is so fantastic. I have a camel wallah who stops to talk to his friends coming down from the top with other camels. We’re so high up and the scenery just keeps on getting better and better. Mark and Donna are coming up behind but a long way down. The path zigzags its way up the red granite mountain and I can see Saint Catherine’s as a tiny speck below. The temperature is gradually dropping as we climb higher and it’s really cold by the time we reach the end of the path. The camels can only go about two-thirds of the way to the top as the rest of the path is too steep and dangerous – great news.
I love the camel stop. It sits on the side of the mountain and is just big enough for a couple of ramshackle huts selling tea and water. Inside is a warm and cosy area where Mark helps me rug up for the cold walk ahead. After cups of tea to warm us up, Mark and I set off with Donna. We take it slow and enjoy the spectacular views. There’s snow in all the rock crevices just to remind us how much colder it will be at the top. Right now we’re not too cold what with all the energy we’re using to climb the steep path. It’s not really a path at all but hundreds of stone steps laid into the rocks. I love the little teahouses along the way some of which have mattresses that you can sleep on overnight. After a very slow climb we three make it to the top – two thousand, two hundred and eighty five feet at the summit. And it’s sunny and just gorgeous – all golden and shiny!
On one side, out of the wind, we find the rest of the crew sitting on the edge in the last rays of sunshine. The view is intensely beautiful and we realise just how high up we really are. Unfortunately Mark and I don’t feel moved religiously but definitely moved by the marvel of nature – maybe it’s the same thing. To celebrate we sit in a tearoom shack at the top and buy hot tea and a Snickers bar – very biblical. Before heading back down, we look at the tiny Greek Orthodox Church perched right at the summit. Donna, Mark and I decide not to hang around for sunset as we want to get back onto the camel path before dark. The stairs are just too dangerous especially with ice around.
The walk down is even more amazing as it’s easier going and we have time to appreciate the views. The sun is setting in a golden sky and the air is so sharp and clean, we can see forever. The fading sunlight creates long shadows of the hundreds of peaks that rise up one behind the other as far as we can see. We also have a great time ripping Claude off after hearing more of her crap at the summit. Apparently she knows all about God, Moses, the Bible, everything …….
We do make it to the camel path by dark and the rest of the walk is easier. It’s pitch black and the path isn’t lit or marked so we still have to keep our wits about us even though we have a torch each. The hour walk to the bottom is fun and the three of us feel totally hyped up. This has been the most incredible day – from snorkelling in the Red Sea to riding camels to drinking tea on the top of Mount Sinai.
Near the monastery we can just make out the van which is waiting in the darkness to take us all back to Moonlands. Half an hour to unpack and then back in the van to go to Catherine village for dinner. It’s the ugliest, saddest excuse for a village you could imagine. No-one’s around but that’s probably because it’s freezing. Despite all this we really like it and we feel true travellers in our bedouin capes which also keep us comfortably warm. We also love the café which is basic but wonderful. The food just keeps on coming – soup, warm pitta bread, chicken, rice, tahini dip, salads and cinnamon tea – so good and so cheap!
Back to Moonlands for an early night. Our room is huge and we have four single beds. Mark pushes two of them together and we have a good sleep under a pile of blankets.
Thursday 27th March, 2003 Catherine to Cairo
At eight o’clock we’re up, showered and out in the sun for breakfast in the courtyard. There’s a lovely fat, ginger cat here who I christen Benny. At 9.15 we’re all ready and off in the van to St Catherine’s Monastery. Like yesterday, there’s heaps of tourists and it’s quite hot in the morning sunshine. Outside is the usual touristy things like souvenir stalls, cafes and toilets. The monastery itself in enclosed in a high stone wall more like a fortress. This, with its remote, arid setting, creates a magical and mysterious sight.
St Catherine’s was built in 527AD supposedly on the spot where Moses saw the burning bush. It’s a Greek Orthodox monastery and twenty-two monks still live here. The monastery is named after Catherine, a Christian saint from Alexandria. She was beheaded after being tortured on a spiked wheel which rolled out of control and killed her torturers. It’s where the name Catherine Wheel came into being – hideous but true. Inside the walls are many buildings which we aren’t allowed to enter since this is still a working monastery. We can, however, see the descendent of the burning bush (really and truly, it is) and inside the impossibly beautiful Basilica of the Transfiguration.
Outside the walls, Mark and I enjoy a cup of tea in the sun, then buy junk food for the nine-hour trip back to Cairo. We drive for three hours through the seemingly unchangeable landscape but which keeps me fascinated every minute. Now we stop at a very interesting and Arabian looking café for lunch. This is a big thatched building with lots of wooden seating, Arabic music and made even more pleasant with yellow sunlight filtering through the straw ceiling. At four o’clock we literally see a ship in the desert – not the camel kind but the real thing. It’s huge and is slowly making its way south along the Suez Canal. The landscape is a flat expanse to the horizon so that the canal itself is invisible from here. This is the weirdest of sights. Soon we arrive in the town of Suez itself to see the canal up close. More huge ships are sailing past but no photos are allowed for security reasons apparently. The town is quite pleasant and the taxis here are blue vans instead of the black and white cars in Cairo and the yellow and black cars in Alexandria.
The rest of the trip back to Cairo is fun. Mark and I sit up the back with Jo and talk to Cheryl sitting in the seat in front. She’s so funny and it’s a shame that we’re all getting on so well when the trip is almost over. Driving through the desert at sunset is beautiful but it’s been a long day and we’re all glad to reach the outskirts of Cairo. It still takes ages to get through the choked roads but at last we pull in at the Carlton at 7pm. It’s been a long nine hours with thirteen of us squashed into such a small space.
Mark and I have prepared a plan of attack which is for me to go inside and order two beers each while Mark gets the backpacks from the van’s roof. We just have time to skull the beers and throw our stuff in our new room before meeting Steve, Ian, Donna, Cheryl, Ross and Jenny downstairs. We’re all off to Café Riche for dinner. This is an old period café about a twenty-minute walk from the hotel. The waiters and friendly, the food is good and we all drink too many beers.
Friday 28th March, 2003 Cairo
We sleep in till eight o’clock and Mark does some washing which we hang out on our big balcony. Our new room is much better and we have French doors that we can open up to let in the warm morning sunshine. The call to prayer is blasting from the rooftops outside and it feels good to be back in Cairo. We decide to have a walk after breakfast so we wander around the streets for half and hour, then meet the crew in the foyer at 9.30am. We all walk down to Nasser Metro Station and take the train to the next stop which brings us up near the Egyptian Museum.
There’s so much security around here. Things have really changed since we left two weeks ago because of the Iraqi war. Soldiers with guns and barricades are set up around the museum but we don’t feel at all worried at the moment. The museum is situated in Central Cairo near Midan Tahrir and only a stone’s throw from the American University which is the reason for the tight security. To make matters worse, today is Friday which is the Islamic prayer day so if there’s to be any backlash against westerners, and especially against American westerners, it will be today.
But our main concern is to see the Egyptian Museum which is supposed to be one of the best in the world. It’s an attractive, dusty-pink coloured building with flowering gardens and ponds behind a tall wrought iron fence. Inside we meet our guide and spend the next two hours touring the main areas including the Tutankhamun Galleries. The treasures found in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor were so abundant that they’re spread out through most of the First Floor of the museum. The big attraction is Room 3 which contains the famous solid gold death mask and the two golden sarcophagi. The whole exhibition is truly amazing but our favourite is the Royal Mummy Room.
This costs extra to go in but again we use our fake ISC cards. The room is air-conditioned to keep the bodies at a low temperature so it’s nice and cool in here. It’s also gloomily lit which gives it a creepy atmosphere and talking above a whisper is not allowed. There are eleven pharaohs and queens in here including Ramses II. They’re incredibly well preserved, some even with hair.
Back out in the sunshine we decide to go for lunch with Jenny, Ian and Donna at a café on Midan Tahrir. Once outside, though we soon change our minds. Now the streets are deathly quiet and each road and sidestreet leading into the midan is blocked off with soldiers in riot gear. They’re protecting this area with guns, helmets and riot shields and we feel totally spooked. It’s unnerving to see this normally traffic-choked area so empty and soundless. We decide to get the hell out of here. All of us look to Mark to take control and he leads us straight to the underground station which is also strangely quiet. We get the train back to Nasser Station and everything seems as normal back up in 24th July Street.
Now the five of us decide to go somewhere where we’ll feel safe, which for us is the Windsor Hotel. Walking through the streets seems different today. There are lots of men praying on mats in alleyways and in the mall. Loud speakers are screaming out ‘death to all westerners’ or that’s what we imagine, anyway. Definitely feeling paranoid and so glad to reach the Windsor. None of the others have been here before and it’s also our first time in the daylight. It’s still a wonderful atmosphere – peaceful, with soft light coming in through the windows in the old dining room with its tasteful period furniture. Lunch is Egyptian pizzas served by the happiest of ladies.
Around into 24th July Street, we split up from the others who go back to the hotel. Suddenly a man runs across the street towards us demanding to know if we’re American or British. ‘No, we’re from New Zealand’ we lie. ‘Do you like Bush?’ he yells; ‘no, we hate Bush!’; ‘do you like Blair?’; ‘no, we hate Blair!’; ‘if I had a gun I would kill them!’. He demonstrates – oh shit!! Thankfully, he now turns to the people watching to happily tell them that we’re from New Zealand. After handshakes all round and lots of smiling, we hightail it back to the Carlton and lock ourselves inside for the rest of the afternoon.
The plan was to go to Khan al-Khalili this afternoon with Intrepid but we’ve been told not to go being prayer day and we definitely agree after our little experience outside. This isn’t a problem as we can go there in the morning and we can spend this afternoon lying around together reading and eating chocolates with the sun pouring in through the open French doors.
At six o’clock we get dressed and venture back out into the streets which are surprisingly normal again. We wander around the mall area, pick up photos, buy an Egyptian CD, a Nubian CD and a shawl for Mum from a guy on the street. I get chatted up by a funny man calling me Cleopatra. I have to sit next to him and he pretends to kiss my hand. These people are so much fun.
At seven o’clock we meet the Intrepid crew in the foyer of the Carlton and head off on foot to the Felfela Restaurant for our farewell dinner. It’s about a twenty-minute walk along the crowded pavements – night-time is definitely the best time of day in Egypt. The restaurant is beautiful and quite upmarket – caged birds, fish tanks, tortoises, dim lighting, cane furniture, stone walls and woodwork. The food is also good but we’re definitely getting bored with some of these people and just want to be alone together. To do the right thing, though, we agree to go to the Windsor for final drinks. Jo is quite pissed by now and good fun. Outside we get stuck with Claude who pretends to know the way even though Mark keeps saying she’s wrong. We eventually let her keep strutting ahead and go the other way. Silly cow arrives long after us but no way will she admit she was lost. At the Windsor, Mark and I drink too many Stellas and don’t leave till 12.30am. Say ‘sad’ goodbyes to those we won’t see again but, except for Donna, we’re not sorry to be leaving any of these people.
Saturday 29th March, 2003 Cairo to Abu Dhabi to Muscat (Oman) to Bangkok
At 8am, we shower, have a quick breakfast downstairs before meeting Donna, Steve, Ian and Jenny in the foyer. They’re coming with us to Khan al-Khalili so we hail down two taxis outside. Ian comes with us and we arrange to meet the others at the mosque. Our taxi is so dodgey and our driver is a scream. When we break down on the way, he happily announces ‘end of journey’ – then he and Mark get out to push. Off we go again and finally make it to the bazaar.
Steve and the girls are there to meet us. Inside, we split up and plan to meet at Fishawi’s Coffeehouse in an hour. Mark and I buy two camel-leather poofs, a brass light which weighs a ton, two brass candelabras, a brass clock, four lanterns, two sheeshas for our girls and other knickknacks. So much to get home but Mark is an incredible packer – had lots of practice as well.
At Fishawis we all order tea and food. This old coffeehouse has supposedly stayed open for two hundred years and it has a wonderful Middle Eastern feel. Huge ornate mirrors line the walls inside but it’s more interesting to sit at small tables in the alleyway. Some men are smoking sheeshas but we haven’t got time today. We say goodbye to the others and hope to see our lovely Donna again one day. The trip has been so much better for her being there.
Mark and I now taxi it back to the Carlton and spend the next three hours packing. At three o’clock, the doorman finds us a taxi for our trip out to the airport. We’re so overloaded but Mark puts a couple of bags on the roof and off we roar in our last Egyptian taxi. Our driver has no idea where to take us and we end up at Terminal 1 – wrong!!! This isn’t good as we now have to drag our bags across a carpark and get another taxi to Terminal 2 which is where Gulf Airlines leaves from. There’s also some confusion with our tickets which still have us going to Bahrain a couple of hours ago. This re-routing thing looks like it may cause quite a few problems. Finally sorted out but then we have to pay $300 AUD for extra baggage (82kg). All this mucking around means that we don’t have long to wait. On board at 5.30pm and I sit next to a lovely young Iraqi girl called Lubna. We talked non-stop for three hours while Mark reads his book. She’s only twenty-nine but we have so much in common. We love the same books and movies and have the same values and beliefs – amazing and we exchange email addresses. She’s on her way to Abu Dhabi to visit her family and we feel best friends already. She’s so excited and I’m so happy for her.
At Abu Dhabi we have a one hour wait on the plane which is now almost empty. Mark and I talk to two ladies sitting behind us. They’re both from Oman and on their way home to Muscat. One is wearing the full veil and robes but is so ‘normal’. She’s complaining about her husband and how he’s sick of minding the kids and how all her plants will probably be dead because he’s too stingy to water them. What a scream! I ask them about the war but they’re too upset to talk about it. The other lady asks the cleaner to mop up a stain on the floor and the veiled lady gets them to bring the four of us tea and coffee. They’re so bossy and self-confident – we’ve seen little evidence of Muslim women being repressed which is the popular western assumption. When it’s announced that we have to change planes because of some sort of mechanical problem, the lady in the veils invites us to stay at her home if we miss our transfer to Bangkok. How’s that?
We all pile out of the plane, onto an airport bus and herded through the space-aged terminal to a downstairs departure lounge already packed with about two hundred Pakistani men. This is people watching at its best. They all look like they just walked off the desert – long white or pale blue robes and white turbans and every last one of them with a full-length beard. Fortunately they board an earlier plane as it would be a very smelly flight to Oman. Only about fifty of us get on our ‘new’ plane. Our two lady friends from Oman joke that we’ve been put back on the same plane and we soon realise that it really is – there’s the same headrest on the same seat and there’s the stain on the floor. Muscat is only an hour away and we’re told that the toilets aren’t working which probably means that it is the same plane after all and when they couldn’t fix the loos they just shoved us back on.
At Muscat we say goodbye to our friends who are rushing off to the toilets to have a quick fag before they meet their husbands – go girls! Mark and I search out the Departures Lounge but we seem to be the only ones in transit. So relieved to find that there actually is a plane coming in from London and bound for Bangkok. We take off at God knows what hour – with all the holdups and time changes we think it might be about 2am. There’s only about forty passengers and we lie down along five seats each with heaps of pillows and blankets – five solid hours of sleep. Arrive in Bangkok at 11am.
Sunday 30th March, 2003 Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok – blue skies, hot, sunny and humid, humid, humid! We leave most of our luggage in storage and head into town on the airport bus. We decide to stay a bit away from Khao San Road for a change and we walk three blocks north and over a small bridge to Soi 1. This is a quiet residential area but only a few metres from all the action. There’s quite a few guesthouses around but we like the look of the Bamboo Guesthouse. This is a fantastic find. It’s an old teak house and run by a family. We’re shown to Room 308 – a large, airy corner room on the second floor with big windows across two walls, two beds, a fan and wooden floors. The shared bathrooms are clean and there’s plenty of them. Downstairs is a communal area open on three sides and surrounded by gardens. You can order food and there’s books and magazines to borrow.
It’s so hot we’re literally pouring water from our water bottles all over us to try and cool down. The humidity is the worst we’ve experienced. Around in Khao San Road for food and then I get measured up for a maroon woollen skirt and jacket and check wool pants while Mark orders a long fawn wool coat. We but a few ‘Café Del Mar’ CD’s then have a massage at Mammas. Mark has a one-hour Thai massage and I have a one-hour oil massage – heaven! It’s so good to get back to Thailand!! We head back to the Bamboo Guesthouse and wander around the nearby sois. A busy street that leads down to the river is lined with restaurants and food stalls. At the river, a lovely park is packed with families and young people doing all sorts of things – fire twirlers, tai chi, other martial arts and lots of music. The most amazing sight is a hundred or so people doing aerobics right on the water’s edge. We watch for a while – all hopeless but having a great time. In another area we find my massage lady sitting on the grass listening to a group of people playing traditional Thai music – very beautiful. Her son is only ten years old and is playing a stringed instrument like a professional. We sit with her for a while and take photos which we promise to send back.
Across the road we eat at a table on the pavement then further on we sit inside a small trendy restaurant. Only Thai people in here – order beers and more food. Love moving around having small bits to eat at different places. Back towards the guesthouse, we sit at a tiny table on the pavement and choose ten king prawns which are cooked over hot coals on the street. Mark buys us beers at a Seven Eleven nearby and we have the best time. It’s so full of life here but a great change from Khao San Road and Thanon Rambutri where we usually hang out.
It’s still only early so before going back to the guesthouse, I decide to have a manicure and pedicure at one of the many beauty parlours in Thanon Rambutri. Mark hangs around but then disappears and I eventually find him having a facial in the next room! Good on you, baby!
Monday 31st March, 2003 Bangkok to Sydney
Wake early because it’s so hot, have cold showers and then downstairs for breakfast. Our first ‘American breakfast’ of our trip. A four year old German girl keeps us entertained. She speaks fluent German and English and lives in South Africa – so worldly. We wander back to Thanon Rambutri and then have a banana shake and noodles in Khao San Road. Another oil leg massage for us both at Mammas, then buy three bedspreads and ten pillow cases. Back to the guesthouse to pack then to pick up our clothes at the tailors. We have to wait and need a quick taxi to get us to the airport. There’s traffic jams everywhere and our driver keeps backtracking and tearing off on other roads which are just as blocked. Forget Ahmed the Terrible – this guy is a legend driver but we’re nearly shitting ourselves in the back seat. We’re doing 150kph and passing on the inside. We’re terrified and tell him to slow down. At the airport we repack our bags and take most of the heavy stuff as hand luggage. No excess baggage to pay this flight. A good trip home with a spare seat next to us.
Tuesday 1st April, 2003 Sydney
Home by hire car.