Monday, September 17, 2007

Cairo: don't forget the pyramids!

As the Royal Jordanian flight touched down in Cairo, I finished John Reader’s Africa: a biography of the continent (1998, Penguin). At last. It’s been one big read. Quite fantastic, though I personally thought just a touch weak in the concluding chapters on modern Africa (post Independence). But still, a magnificent read.

On our last afternoon in Nairobi, way back then, we used up the time to visit the Karen Blixen house. A bit understated. But we did buy a copy of Out of Africa (1937, Penguin Classics). Well, you have to, don’t you? Just like we have bought Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls when in Key West, Florida, and his Old Man and the Sea (the Spanish version, that is: El Viejo y El Mar) when in Havana, Cuba, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped from his house in Samoa. There’s been others, but you get the idea, just a little quirk of ours. In fact, there's been several books bought and read in Africa where the authors lived or the subject was set. Most recently, of course, Deb's purchase of Married to a Bedouin from Petra, Jordan. Anyhow, I’m now reading Out of Africa. Now, do you want a coincidence, and this one takes a few years? Old Man and the Sea won for Hemingway the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. Next year he was awarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature. 'Upon receiving the latter, he noted with uncharacteristic humbleness that he would have been "happy; happier...if the prize had been given to that beautiful writer Isak Dinesen", referring to Danish writer Karen Blixen' (Wikipedia). I love this kind of stuff.

Arriving in Cairo and making our way from the airport we are immediately reminded of a downside of Cairo: the taxi drivers. We return to our first visit hotel, a good idea since they are holding a bag of our stuff and we are expecting tickets to Spain to be delivered there.

We have three full days back in Cairo before departing Africa. And we have a few things we want to get done: a visit to the Suez Canal (don’t forget the pyramids!); a trip to Alexandria on the Med coast (don’t forget the pyramids!), and a trip to Giza to see the pyramids - imagine a trip to Egypt and forgetting to see the pyramids!

Day One and we plan a morning trip to the Canal at Suez, then an afternoon trip from there to Alex for an overnight stay and return to Cairo the next evening. All perfect in principle. Some days travel plans go like a dream, and some days they don’t.

To cut a long story short, and save the pain of reliving it all, we did get to Suez, and we did get to Alexandria that day. But not until about midnight, and after a return to Cairo and another leg up to the coast.

I doubt this makes sense, but the Suez Canal was sort of what I expected, and sort of different. It’s maybe 100 metes wide, with low, flat desert either side. Just a water course through the desert. And wouldn’t you know it, despite hanging out in cafes and restaurants for a couple of hours, we didn’t see a ship pass. A muck up with bus departures in Cairo meant we arrived during the change of directions.

Late afternoon we took the bus to Alexandria, via Cairo (don’t forget the pyramids!). Which all went without incident. We did catch a sleep on the bus which meant we were right for going out when we eventually arrived at Alexandria. But it did reduce our time for a visit, becoming much shorter than it deserves. It has a lovely corniche, waterfront promenade. And besides, we have now travelled Africa bottom to top.

We spent the day ´cafe-ing´, and enjoying a great seafood lunch. But the sensational highlight was our visit to Bibliotecha Alexandrina. It has been built off the back of world-wide sponsorship, especially from the EU. Architecturally stupendous.It offers 2,000 PCs for library searching. I can only suggest taking a visit to and taking some time out to have a good look around the web site. You’ll be able to search ancient Egyptian manuscripts, and more. Fantastic place.

Caught a train back to Cairo. I was surprised when I had a meaningful and pleasant conversation with an Egyptian man. Our friend Sara will disagree with me, but I hadn’t thought this possible. Maybe an awful thing to say, but I’ve had my patience tested. But we talked of Islam, of Ramadan, his job as a mechanical engineer at a textile factory, of working for a multi-national. Very pleasant.

Anyhow, the next day back in Cairo is the first day after the new moon. It’s the start of Ramadan. And with a cool spell making temperatures, very pleasant (early thirties - we must be acclimatising), Cairo is a different place. It’s gone stunningly quiet. But we do get to Giza.

And we see the pyramids, and the Sphinx. Cool. Not disappointed. And, I cannot believe I have done this. Sara coerces us into taking a horse ride into the desert to look back at the pyramids. Oh man. But she is a very good rider, and it had to be better than a bloody donkey, or worse - a horrible camel.

We want to say our farewells and celebrate our end of the Africa trip. We're off to Spain the next day, and Sara to Sweden the following. She has been a great travelling companion for a couple of weeks. We have had a heap of fun, and shared some neat adventures. Finding a beer was even more difficult than usual. With respect to Ramadan, some of the places that usually serve beer don’t for the month. But good old Winda-zor (Windsor) comes through. I have a Stella, Deb and Sara go the full throttle and have gin and tonics. Even getting a feed was difficult. We found a really nice Chinese Restaurant, The Peking, as you do in Cairo!!!

Since Nairobi, I have missed newspapers. Firstly, and obviously, to read. And secondly, to give me ammunition to write stuff about in my blogs. I’ve been reduced to writing travelogues. Not my favourite. Besides you can all find TV programmes, books, and magazines that do it so much better than me. If I write about a trivial thing I find interesting it comes across as inane, something bigger or more interesting as big noting. And it reads like I’m telling you how to travel, which is not what is intended. It’s only my experience - pretty personal, and as a result, hardly worth sharing. I loved it when I could comment on happenings and events as reported in local newspapers. Then that’s news for you as well. But don’t fear ...

Last day and I do locate the Daily News Egypt (Tuesday, September 11, 2007 - so OK its three days old, but I’m not complaining) and look at what you have been missing:

From page 6, and oddly enough the Business Section: Saudi cancels camel beauty contest amid mystery deaths. Riyadh: 'Saudi Arabia has called off a camel beauty contest scheduled for later this month in the face of the mystery deaths of thousands of the animals that are a national icon in the deart kingdom.' ...
'In Saudi Arabia, camels are often referred to by the Arabic word mazaen (beauties) and can fetch more than one million riyals (200,000 Euros) a head.'...
'At least 2,000 animals have died over the past month, according to ministry figures. An AFP count based on press reports suggests at least 5,000 animals have died and thousands more fallen sick.'...
'From its base in London, the banned Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia suggested that a "leading Saudi prince has poisoned thousands of camels belonging to other owners.'

Serious business. But, perhaps, not as serious as (page 5, The Region) Iran steps up crackdown against 'immoral' activity´. 'Tehran: Iran is pressing on with one of its toughest crackdowns in years, warning tens of thousands of women over slack dress, targeting "immoral" cafes and seizing illegal satellite receivers, local media reported on Monday.' ...'The Iranian police launched the crackdown in April in a self-declared drive to "elevate security in society" that encompassed arrests of thugs, raids on underground parties and street checks of improperly dressed individuals.' ... 'Reza Zarei, commander of police in Tehran province, said that since the drive began the police have handed out 113,454 warnings to women found to have infringed Iran’s strict Islamic dress rules.' ... 'He added that 5,700 people - including 1,400 men - have been sent to "guidance classes" on how to behave in society.' ... 'Zarei said police have been targeting billiard halls and coffee shops - the latter hugely popular in Tehran as a meeting place for men and women - as certain establishments promoted immorality.' ... 'Watching satellite television is illegal in the Islamic republic as it is deemed to spread decadence.'

So there you have it.

And that’s that. A little over six months and we are off on Egypt Air to Madrid, Spain. Keep an eye on Just Call Me Mad, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

aka Mad

Friday, September 7, 2007

Jordan: if only all travel were this easy

The Sinai is a tough piece of landscape. The drive from the coast to St. Katherine's monastery , still used by Greek Orthodox priests, is through harsh desert, with rock outcrops reaching straight to the sky. For fourteen Bedouin tribes, Sinai is home. Over the years, Egypt and Israel have warred for possession over the top of the Bedouin.

The climb to the top of Mt. Sinai was done overnight, under moonlight, to allow that particularly quaint tourist habit of having to view sights at sunrise. he climb up is via the 'camel track', and down via a steep rocky path of 3,000 plus steps. The sunrise, it has to be said, was indeed a beauty.

On return, we had arranged to be dropped off at a police checkpoint on the Dahab - Nuweiba highway, where we hoped to be picked up by a bus to take us to Nuweiba. This better work - we'll be in the desert. It worked.

Nuweiba is pretty much a nothing town. Just a port on the edge of the desert. We arrived close to mid-day, shagged, and being told a ferry to Aqaba, Jordan, would leave at 2:30pm. We located the ferry tickets sales building, not as you might expect on or near the wharf. What a thrash. Queues a kilometre long, it seemed. Luckily, we worked out that women can go to the head of the queue., which Deb does and buys the tickets. We told a Japanese group - one woman, three guys the same trick. And in that usual Japanese polite way they were very thankful, with many bows.

We hadn't eaten since dinner the night before, apart from some biscuits, so found an eating spot for some omelet and falafel pita breads, and some Arabic coffee. Plain and simple, does the trick.

We trekked off to the ferry terminal. Another zoo. And that was just immigration. The departure hall was crazy. Hot as hell. We located some benches under a high ceiling fan, read for a while, eventually succumbing, lying down and promptly falling asleep. Deb and I had a slow start to the previous day, but were up all night on the mountain. Sara, on the other hand, is a keen equestrian and had taken an Arab stallion for a tough ride out to a desert oasis, ('she rode through the desert on a horse with no name'), and was totally knackered.

Some time later, a joker was giving me a gentle shake, but not keen or allowed to even dream of touching Deb or Sara, indicates to me to wake them.

We board the ferry. First task is to go to the front of the boat and have our passports taken of us for Jordanian visas. After an hour, the ferry departs: it's 9:00pm!!!

Deb and I had teamed with Sara from the Egyptian border, after the Sudan train trip, because we figured we'd be doing the Libya trip together. With that falling over, and the idea of side-tripping to Jordan 'just happening', we stuck together. No problems, easy.

We arrived at Aqaba, maybe 10:15pm, having skirted around the top of Saudi Arabia, the lights on the other side of the harbour are Eilat, Israel - or Palestine, as they say in these parts.

Jordan is different. But of course, we've left Africa behind, we are in the Middle East. One sensed that even in Egypt they saw themselves as Arabic firstly, then maybe Middle Eastern, but thirdly as African. But smaller differences are immediately apparent. English is widely spoken; Immigration and Customs halls are clean and tidy; the taxi into town is a tidy car; the driver waits while we check out the hotel, drives us to his recommendation when deciding against the first; accepts the minimum fare we had been told without question. His recommended hotel is a lovely little place - warm (not hot, not necessary) fresh water (for five days in Dahab we had showered in brackish salt water - it didn't seem to matter at the time.), air-conditioned, and with cable TV. At 11:00pm we started watching a Bruce Willis movie - for about five minutes before crashing asleep.

Next morning, and Aqaba looks a lovely town, we start putting a bit of a plan together over juice and coffee. Backtracking is always a bit of a pain, retracing the ferry trip wasn't appealing (though already we figure it would be better on the Jordanian side, compared to the Egyptian madhouse.) Our time in Jordan is limited, se we decide to make the most of the week. So the plan was (for then!): Wadi Rum for an overnight desert experience, Petra, Dead Sea, then fly from Amman, the capital, back to Cairo. Deb and I already know that if it wasn't for her Masters degree start, a bag back at the hotel in Cairo, we'd be pushing on: Lebanon, Syria and then fly to Spain from Turkey.

Some things, however, are the same. It was already 39 degrees C at midday, and the hot part of the day was still to come. But Jordan is different. Returning to out hotel, we stop off at the bus station and enquire about buses to Wadi Rum. "Bus go now." But we hade to collect our bags - a ten minute return. "No problems, we wait." They do, and we're off in a bus with only two other passengers aboard. No waiting until the bus is full. This is stunning; quite unbelievable.

The bus conductor, Mubarak abu Rasheed, decides the opportunity is right to rack up a bit of business: "If you want desert trip, stay overnight, eat Bedouin style, my brother he do special price for you."

Well, it's what we have come to Wadi Rum for. We agree and before you know it we have bypassed the tourist centre for such outings, and been dropped off at the conductors house; his wife promptly serves tea; we meet one year old Rasheed (Abu means father of, the naming convention: Mubarak 'father of eldest son' Rasheed); and the trip is put together by calling up brothers.

This desert, with a range of coloured sands, and sandstone and granite mountains is simply stunning. We've seen a bit of deserts recently, but this is cool. Great light effects from the sun. This is where old T.E. himself, Lawrence of Arabia used do some of his rarking around. In fact, many scenes from the original classic movie was shot here.

What a lovely night. The brother, Audi, turns out to be a great joker. Around the campfire he tells us all about Bedouin traditions (most lead a dual life: we've already seen stacks of the goat hair tents in the desert, just as likely to have a Landcruiser as well as the camel parked outside - but also a house in the village so kids can go to school); remorsefully telling about his recently broken up seven year relationship with a Swiss woman; his new business venture taking French tourists through Algeria; singing a few traditional songs; and telling us the secrets of 'romancing' a woman. (I ask the question that had been bugging me: "Does a man ever get to see the woman who wears a full veil before they marry?" Apparently there is an 'engagement' period of a month prior to the wedding when he can get to see her.)

But the 'romancing' is something else again. It's all about whispering sweet nothings. He describes the sweet talk that must occur. Talk like: "If a bee should ever taste the honey from your lips, it would never again touch a flower." "Of a nighttime, when you open your eyes all the stars in the heaven close when they see your beautiful light." And so on. We try to hold back out chuckles. This is all just too much. He was so earnest. The girls tell Audi: "Max is very romantic. It doesn't matter where he is, when he sees the full moon he just goes very romantic." Audi is very impressed. Well, if two girls say it. "Yes, Max. Like what things you say, for example?" asks Audi. I think for a moment. "Oh just little things like - Every time I look at these beautiful rocks I see your face." " When I see the stars sparkling I am reminded of the crumbs you've dropped down the front of your black dress." "Every time I touch a Bedouin goat-hair tent, I am reminded of the feel of stroking your hair." "Every time I notice a mosquito bite on your arm, I would just love to help you scratch it." It just comes easily. Just a natural.

But the experience with just the three of us, and not a full tour party of several 4WDs is nice. In fact, the well worn, old, first edition Landcruiser adds to the charm. Gorgeous sunset, wonderful stars, stunning sunrise against the rock walls. But I feel a little disorientated. I'm not familiar with these northern hemisphere stars. We discover later, that we did get a real bargain as well.

Another bus belts us through the desert on superb roads to Wadi Musa. On the way, the driver has to slow down and show us the stockyards where Australian and NZ sheep, live exports, are penned after arrival at Aqaba. He's very pleased with himself to be of such knowledge.

The conductor, as they do, sees his opportunity and recommends a hotel for us. Again another beauty. The owner has to be a sister, cousin, or some family relation for sure. But already travel in Jordan is just so easy. It's a fairly popular tourist destination, thankfully we are here in the off season - very quiet (Can only imagine what Egypt is like at its peak). It still has a bit of the exotic. Great roads, good transport, no hassles people. Couldn't be simpler. Wadi Musa, set dramatically on the side of a mountain in muted sandstone colours, is the service town for Petra. It's a tad cooler, being at a bit of altitude, and has a nice splash of trees. We work up to visiting the Petra complex. In the first afternoon we check out little Petra, then do the candlelit nighttime visit to Petra that evening. A day off, (actually Sara, with over eight months travel under the belt and a week to go, is firing out both ends. We call a doctor. Funny, we have eaten exactly the same across the past few days), then the big One. Petra recently (July 2007) got voted as one of the seven new wonders of the world (, can't say I agree with the finalists myself.

It features the temples, tombs, and auditoriums hewn from towering rock faces. They were created by the Nabataens - a new one for me - an Arab people from pre-Roman era. They controlled, and taxed, the trade route that passed here. feature is the large Siq, a canyon like split in the rocks caused by tectonic earth movements - which provided a good hidden entrance. The Romans came, saw, and conquered, as they did, and carried on building magnificent sites. Quite fantastic. Expansive, extensive, and understandably very popular.

We've had a head-on collision with the tourist trail. There must have been a travel show on Petra back home. For the first time we have come across Aussies and Kiwis in droves, nearly all on package tours.

Funny thing happened. We spoke to a joker in a tea shop. When he discovers Deb is a Kiwi, he immediately asks "You know Marguarite?" Deb is puzzled. Marguarite van Geldermalsen (like Deb, a Dutch father) is a the guy's sister-in-law, who has married a Petra Bedouin, and written of the experience: Married to a Bedouin (2006, Virago). Bedouins consider themselves all related. If you come from New Zealand, you must be related. Before Deb knows what is happening, she has a cell phone trust in her hand, with Marguarite on the other end. She's very understanding; it happens regularly enough. But Deb, in her lovely affable style, chats away for a while. She buys the book.

It was quite a magnificent site: expansive, extensive, and understandably popular. We were quite shagged at the end of the day. It didn't stop us watching the original Indiana Jones movie at the hotel that night: it feature Petra at start and end. Like a bus conductor, our taxi driver back to our hotel, Mohammed - yep, another one!) saw his chance. We negotiated a ride up to Amman next day, taking in the sites: a better option than busing to Amman, on to another bus to and from the Dead Sea.

It was a good choice. We were taken to, stopped and had explained all the attractions along the Kings' Highway. The alternative, the Desert Highway, was just that. At one point, the road drops from near At Talifa, just over 2000m altitude, to the shores of the Dead Sea, the earth's lowest surface point, just over 400m below sea level. At this point we proceed along the Israeli West Bank border. A fenced, heavily military guarded district on both sides. To our driver's surprise there are also many police checks, and a lot of helicopters overhead. He figures something has happened, but isn't game to ask what. (Next day we read in the Jordanian Times that Tony Blair, Special Envoy to the Middle East Peace Process as he now prefers to call himself, I understand, is out and about.) He tells us that the radio news is all about an Al-Qaeda bombing in Algeria. He spends the next while berating Al-Qaeda and how un-Islamic an organisation it is. He reckons the word 'peace' is repeated 165 times throughout the Quran.

Anyway, the Dead Sea. Everyone knows about the high salinity and how you float so easily. But it is something you jus have to experience. When not quite knee deep you can lower yourself and bob away. Cool. A slight drop on your lips tastes gross. And it seems rubbing Dead Sea mud all over yourself is the other must do. The cold shower afterwards is much more refreshing than the swim. You need to wear sandals to the water’s edge. The sand is hot, hot, hot. The car radio apparently (thanks to Mohammed) told us it was 40 degrees at the Dead Sea's Amman Beach. But, as happens, we are starting to get used to these temperatures.

Driving along the sea shore, with a very clear day, we could see Jerusalem in the distance - and could make out the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. At the northern end of the Sea is the source of the Jordan River, the Baptism site, and Madaba - home of the mosaic that mapped all biblical sites from Egypt to Lebanon (560AD).

Driving through olive groves into Amman city and the large direction signs point the way to the Iraq border, the Saudi Arabia border, the Syria border, and the Palestine border. It's a sprawling, low-rise, subdued colour tones - almost monochromatic, city. Quite attractive. We stay in the old bazaar quarters of Downtown, but go for dinner in the more modern, middle class suburb of Shemisani - a nice change.

Quite like this Amman city.

Caught the first round results of the Rugby World Cup on the BBC. Only surprise (was it?) the Argies over hosts France. I read on that the All Blacks are pissed because the Italians turned their backs on the Haka. That old story again. I don't understand that one. I'm all for developing and maintaining your culture, but at home. Heading offshore and jamming your culture down others throats is nothing short of imperialism.

Did you know that in the early 1900s an All Black and a Wallabies team were touring the UK. The All Blacks performed a haka, and the Wallabies a war cry. From memory, I don't think there was a Maori or an Aboriginal in either team. Anyhow, the press gave both teams a real dress down calling the performances shabby and belittling of 'natives'. The Australians, then as they still are now, being the more politically correct dropped the routine. The All Blacks persited. If you are prepared to wait a couple of years until I get home to my books, I can quote source, the newspaper, etc.

North of Amman lies Jerash, a preserved Roman city. But we have to say stop somewhere. Besides anymore of all these old Roman sites will be the ruins of us. Sorry.

Tonight, we fly Royal Jordanian back to Cairo. Back to Africa (Strewth! We better see those pyramids and the Sphinx!).

Mixed emotions, only four days before we fly to Spain.

Man. Where has that six months gone?

aka Mad

Monday, September 3, 2007

But wait, there's more: Jordan

Apart from wanting to visit, our trip to Sinai was also to use up a few days.

A South African couple, with a 4WD, we met at Wadi Halfa and on the ferry had invited us to join them crossing Libya to Tunisia. Then we could fly Tunis to Madrid - it would have been great to go all the way to Morocco then just hop across the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain, but Algeria is a no-go zone, and its border with Morocco is closed.

Traveling across Libya is not straight forward. It can only be done with a guide who travels with you, in one of your vehicles - there was to be three vehicles in convoy. You are permitted a 'Transit Visa' for this type of visit. But enough time to cross, and see the Roman ruins, Tripoli etc. The visas are a bureaucratic struggle, car registration tricky, etc etc. Apparently, the South Africans had a contact/guide lined up to get all the formalities processed. We submitted all our passport details in readiness for the visa.

The South Africans stayed in Aswan finalising all their Egyptian vehicle formalities - they needed some extra paperwork from South Africa. We went ahead, planning to meet up in Cairo on September 7.

We kept in email contact. Then one day, while staying in Dahab, we received a terse email saying 'No go. All too hard. Ferrying the 4WD Cairo to Morocco'. That's that. Ah well. Bit disappointing, but we are in no position to feel down beat. It was just an extra to an already unbelievable trip.

Plan B. In Dahab, we are close to Jordan, so with the opportunity we'll cross the border (after crossing Gulf of Aqaba!) and take a look at the wonders of Petra. Man, this could continue for ages, but no...

We've now booked airfares to Madrid for 14 September. So after Jordan, we'll make our way back to Cairo, see the pyramids, the Sphinx, and a couple of days on the Mediterranean at Alexandria.

Not such a bad option, what do you reckon?

aka Mad

Sinai: you wouldn't catch me wandering about here for forty years

Heading from Cairo to the Sinai, by bus (not the same restrictions up here), you are immediately back into the desert. And lines of cannons and anti-aircraft missiles at the ready, as you near the Suez Canal. Fairly heavy military presence.

Dipping under the Suez Canal through a tunnel does more than take you to the Sinai. We actually cross from Africa to Asia. Glimpses of the Gulf of Suez sparkle; the rest is harsh desert with stark, short, steep, rock hills.

The bus takes us to the south of the Sinai Peninsula, to the sea-side tourist resorts town of Sharm El-Sheikh. With a couple of hours wait, we taxied down to town for refreshment. Long enough.

We're heading to the village of Dahab. As we await our bus, a huge, blood-red, full moon rises, shimmering across the Gulf of Aqaba. In jest, I say "This is pretty romantic, eh girls?" Deb and Sara burst out laughing. "Oh yeah, sitting in the bitumen car park of a bus station, being harangued by touts. Very romantic, Max." We laugh. I guess they'll laugh again whenever they see a full moon.

Each night since, in Dahab, as we sit on Turkish carpets, on thrown cushions, low tables, having a cold Stella, sea lapping at our side, the near full moon still rising desert-red above the hills of Saudi Arabia, probably only 25kms away, moon rays shining all the way across the waters of the Gulf, we turn to each other and say: "This is pretty romantic, eh?", laugh, and sigh. And reflect on just how lovely it is.

Dahab was once a bit of a hippies hang out. While it has developed tourist wise, it's still got a lovely laid back feel. It's pretty hot; it's the desert right to the sea's edge. But in a reverse of weather patterns at home, Oz and NooZillan, it's breezy in the morning, starting about 1:00am) and dead calm in the afternoons and evening The breeze helps keep the temperature down to the mid thirties. As it eases in the evening, it actually feels warmer, but without the unforgiving, unrelenting sun.

Dahab is a real dive-heads hang out. Good reefs, and stacks of marine life all part of the Red Sea. Sara takes the opportunity to do her Master Diver training. Deb and I, having snorkeled in stacks of places, bite the bullet and do the PADI Open Water Diver course. Full on couple of days: two dives a day, a book to study, Knowledge Review quizzes to do each night. A final exam. And we've done it. Open Water Divers, allowed to dive anywhere to 18 metres. That will open up new opportunities with bro, Whaleboy, and niece, Asha.

It's going to be a bit hard leaving Dahab.

So who is this traveling buddy, Sara? Swedish, but has spent some years working/living in Germany. After her Business Studies degree in England, she got a job with INFORM in a marketing position. But transferred to a consultant's role traveling the world to major airports advising, selling, and implementing ground handling improving procedures. Sounds a cool job. She also plays a mean game of pool. As a doubles team at a local bar (hey! Dahab is a tourist town) we've been hard to beat. She's pleasant company, we get along well. We respect each others space. She has been traveling two months longer than us, down some West African countries to Namibia, then flew to Kenya, and we have been pretty much on the same trail since, crossing paths in Addis Ababa, joining up when leaving Sudan. I think we are just in the same traveller 'head space'.

The Sinai experience has been completed with a trip to the top of Mt. Sinai. At night, because of the heat, and to witness the sun rise. After the Ethiopian 'arc of the covenant' experiences, it just seemed to complete the story by going up to where Moses supposedly received the Ten Commandments. At the base of the mount is St. Katherine's monastery. Katherine was a martyr at Alexandria, apparently tortured on a spiked wheel and then beheaded. (Hence, the fireworks called a Katherine's Wheel.) Ah, the Christians and Moslems have such a history of getting along.

Our plans take a slight detour at this point.

aka Mad

Cairo: the Arab world's biggest city

Cairo: A little crazy; a little chaotic; but what a buzz. A neat place. An adventure just crossing the street. Taxi drivers another breed. Love it.

Stacks of retailing and offices but still street stalls and eating.

And we tracked down the fantastically quaint Windsor Hotel (made slightly more difficult with the local 'Winda-zore' pronunciation, with a good range of cold beers. We were prepared to have another crack at the local Stella, not to be confused with the Belgian Stella Artois. Not bad, when cold.

The Big One in Cairo is, of course, the Egyptian Museum. Chocker full of things Pharoanic (a wee Paul Theroux joke). Over crowded with tour parties - the leader carrying a pink umbrella, or the tour name on a banner, all members with their sticky labels on their chest. Forget the rest of the museum: they are here for one purpose and they bee-line for the Tutankhamen galleries, which are a pushing, jostling, squeezing madhouse. But if you take your time, have a good look around all the other exhibits, and then find your way to the Tut's treasures some time after 3:30 - 4:00pm you can almost have the area to yourself, nearly.

Another example of having seen lots of photos, feeling like you just about know it, then seeing the real thing. Pretty special. What treasures. But you know that.

The pyramids and Sphinx can wait until we come back from a trip to the Sinai.

Oh man, it's hot. Guess you have to expect that if visiting in summer.

aka Mad

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Walk like, walk like an Egyptian.

Perhaps, show some respect and at least dress a little like an Egyptian.

I wrote earlier of our surprise coming across 20 foreigners at Wadi Halfa, Sudan. But, getting off the ferry and arriving at Aswan, Egypt and we were confronted with bloody millions of tourists. Culture shock!

Heat does terrible things to people's dress sense. You need go no further than Queensland to witness that. But crickey! Egypt is an Islamic state, and the way visitors dress is stunning. Some would even shock residents of the Gold Coast. No, I'm not suggesting visitors, especially women, adopt Moslem clothing style, but ... No wonder fundamentalist extremists have made attacks on tourists in the recent past. It must all be such an affront.

Some tourist woman at a Luxor site was dressed in what appeared her underwear, an unbuttoned, low-cut singlet top, prancing in high heels; the singlet read 'Do you think I'm sexy?' Rhetorical question. Shocker. Men as bad. No shirts, beer gutted, wearing poloni-strangler shorts.

But they are mostly package tourists, many staying on the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada. This place is described as the world's worst tourist trap. One guide describes it: 'visit it at your peril, and avoid it if you can.' Sounds none to appealing. They visit Aswan and Luxor on day/side trips. I figure they have packed for the beach and that's it. But they wear what the style police would, or definitely should, arrest for at home.

Call me old fashioned. But, we are visitors. Don't you show a little respect in your host's home? I guess it just seems odd for us having traveled, respecting custom, especially in Ethiopia (not Moslem but has its customs just the same) and Sudan. I know western and islamic thinking is very different, but there has to be a middle ground.

I got a lot of jibes in Aswan walking along with two women. The guys here are first class lecherous. But no chance of feeling big headed, I'm also brought back to size pretty quickly with a little backhander "That a beautiful daughter you have, mister." And poor Deb: "No wonder, she have such a beautiful mother. You very lucky, mister." Gets a tad tedious fairly quickly. The store owners are rapacious. Constantly in your face. But it gets tiresome bartering for bottles of water, or an ice-cream.

We'd been longing for a beer for a while now, all through Sudan. They are available in Egypt, but not freely outside tourist hotels (even ours in Aswan and Luxor didn't have them - but I guess there's tourist hotels and tourist hotels.) In Aswan, we went looking. We found an upmarket hotel, on the river, feluccas sailing, and sun setting, but what a disappointment. It wasn't cold enough by a long shot. I've written of the perils of warm beer. Bugger. Bit of a let down. An internet search showed Luxor at 43 degrees C, and the same for each of the next five days.

Before arriving, the idea of a felucca trip on the Nile from Aswan to Edfu looked appealing. But it's just a tourist trap. People we spoke to that had done it wished they hadn't. Between Aswan and Luxor we visited Kom Ombo, right on the Nile banks, and the Temple of Horus, Edfu - one of Egypt's best preserved temples. Luxor needs no description. With Kanak and Luxor Temple, Valley of Kings, Valley of Queens, Hatshepsut.

All the famous sites of Aswan and, especially, Luxor are truly magnificent. All the grandeur was something else again. It happens time and again as you travel. You visit a site, natural or man-made, for the first time but you feel you know it so well already. You've seen pictures of it before: books, movies etc. But then you see it real for the first time and it just takes your breath away. Abu Simbel, south of Aswan does that. Stunning. In its own way, but also because of the relocation project that saved it from being lost, flooded by Lake Nassar and the Aswan high dam. We got a night time, floodlit view from the ferry as we passed. We just knew we had to get the 270 km back through the desert to see it again. But we had to travel down in convoy, leaving Aswan at 4:00am.

Early Christian visitors earsed faces and any uncovered flesh from the figures.

Recent bombings of tourists means the Egyptian police have become over protective, especially in these high tourist visit places. Travel is supposed to be on over expensive (in US$ fares) sleeper or first class trains; tourist buses in convoys. If I was a bomber, what would I target? The odd train/bus on the off chance there would be a tourist, or go for the convoy or train only carrying tourists? Hmmmm. Anyway, we haven't forgotten our overlanding ways. We 'heard' there was a 7:00am bus to Cairo and get there: no bus. But 8:30am, bus comes: to Hurghada - no thanks. Had also heard there was a train at 9:15am, shoot (Crickey! don't say shoot around here) back to the station and attempt to buy a ticket. Can't do, only a local train, 2nd class. Train comes, and we jump on. Buy our tickets off the conductor no problems, which includes a 'fine' for not having a ticket, but still less than one-sixth of the price of a first class ticket. We didn't have a seat, so a bit of shuffling until we settled. It's comfortable, and air conditioned. Just don't think about using the loos, oh boy. And we got to travel with locals again, share their lunch and cups of tea. This is the way. Lovely.

We travel alongside the Nile all the way. The desert either side of the green, irrigated, strip. Eastern (Arabic) Desert one side, Western (Libyan) Desert the other - this one becomes localised as the White and Black Deserts nearing Cairo.

Arrive at Cairo station. First things first. Goes without saying, the battle with the Cairo taxi drivers. Ah, it's all good fun. And as usual, when you state your destination: "Yes! Yes! I know." then precede all directions, asking people as they go: "Do you speak English? Can you speak to these tourists and find out where the hell I am going?" Of course, they then want to charge for having driven half way around Cairo. Fat chance of that. Like I've said, you have to see the fun in it. Otherwise...

Right. Cairo. Bring it on.

aka Mad