|Traveller Home Egypt|
Today we bummed around Cairo and finally made it to the Egyptian Museum to see Tutankhamen's treasures. Going to the Egyptian Museum certainly sounds like something innocuous, but there in Egypt it was still a mission of sorts. First of all it sits on the opposite side of Tahir Square, the largest traffic congested section in all of Cairo; ten lanes of traffic (with about two dividers) constantly whizzing past you at suicidal speeds. The traffic lights don't help, because even if there's a red light the Egyptians don't bother to stop, let alone slow down. So, the only way to get across this mess is to pick the narrowest section where the traffic was slowing down a bit and go for it - rather a real life version of that old 'Frogger' video game. It took us a while to get used to it, but eventually we caught on. The Egyptians seem to walk out into the middle of the traffic, taking no notice of who's coming or going. I watched a woman with a four foot long cabinet balanced on her head walk straight off the sidewalk and into the moving traffic, then waltz through the lead foots to the other side of the street unharmed. We, as tourists would start walking then run back to the curb if there was a car coming too close. Finally an Egyptian man came over and told us to just walk out into the street - the traffic would go around us. With that he stepped off into the traffic, but this time we followed him. Well, not really followed him, rather used him as a shield, keeping him on the side of the oncoming traffic. I figured if he got hit the car would be slowing down by the time it took me out. We made it! Every day since then while traveling in the Third World I'd always try to use human shields of locals against the traffic - just in case.
Made it to the Egyptian Museum, bought the 'Foreigners' tickets then paid an extortive amount for my 'Camera Ticket' so I'd be able to take photos. Rich and Sarah made it through the entrance with their day packs but the doorman grabbed me and told me to check it in with the coat room - no bags allowed. I'd seen Egyptians and other people already go through with their bags and there was a huge queue at the baggage check, so I tried a different door, but the doorman caught me again and told me to ditch my bag. At this point a huge French tour group arrived and I was surrounded by a sea of geriatrics, all wearing neon yellow Gilligan type sailors caps (so they'd be identifiable to their tour leader when lost - which was pretty much all the time). The doorman came away from the door and began speaking to the group in broken French. As I was immersed in this group I ducked and headed through the elderlies and through the door into the museum. Let the French people deal with the bag check, not me. The only item that really struck me was the huge gold mask that King Tut was found wearing when he was unearthed. The thing is large, and solid gold; more than I've ever seen in one place in my entire life - it was truly stunning.
We walked around Cairo a bit that day, then Sarah went to the room while Rich and I went out that evening to get some dinner. We headed to this shop that sells these small buns full of gyros meat, then covered with humus. Plus, they were so cheap we walked in there and, to the cashier's amazement ordered twelve of them to satisfy our hunger. While we were walking through Cairo that evening I notices that the Egyptians would always look at our shoes. In Cairo there aren't a lot of clothing boutiques, rather because the women have to cover most of their body from public view the only way for them to accessorize and express themselves is by their shoes. I have never seen as many shoe shops in a row in my entire life than there are in Egypt. The shoes are the way people make snap judgments of each other - the same way we might do it about someone's car - so the bigger and shinier the shoes the more impressive. We were both wearing our clumpy hiking boots and they definitely caught the eyes of many a passer-by. Rich's boots had all these shiny silver eyeholes which really caught the locals' eyes. As we were waiting for our food this Egyptian man jokingly offered Rich two chickens and a camel for his shoes. Many people had asked if he was selling his shoes, but this last offer took the cake.
17th October 1992, Cairo to Aswan, Egypt -
Our train ride from Cairo to Aswan was a very interesting experience. We'd booked reserved seats, but when we boarded our carriage there was someone sitting in one of our seats. There was this Egyptian who asked the dude in our seat to move, and when he wouldn't, all of a sudden, like ten different people were involved in this discussion - plus they were all standing up for us; the foreigners. After much Arabic yapping the seats finally got sorted out. Once we'd all sat down and were beginning to get comfortable Sarah turned to the window and said, "Don't look now, but there's a big cockroach that just crawled up the wall and under the window frame." We asked her if it was necessary to share that information with us. [Hence the birth of the "Things you don't want to Know" list]
The train pulled away and a few stops later heaps of people got on and started putting all their crap in the overhead bins in our carriage. Sarah's pack was across the aisle up above and one Egyptian slid it farther down the rack to make room for his 15 boxes he was about to put up there. When he'd moved Sarah's pack he accidentally squashed another local's bag. I don't know what was in the smashed bag, but Wow! All hell broke loose. The man whose bag got smashed stood up and started screaming at the top of his lungs at the first dude. Plus, with Egyptians being the busy bodies that they are, at least twenty people in the surrounding area stood up and began screaming at the two men in Arabic. Rather amusing to those of us who didn't understand a word of the language - seeing these "eyes" dressed in black head to foot yapping away at the two Egyptians. It turns out the dude who did the bag smashing just came into our carriage to store his 15 huge boxes even though he was sitting elsewhere. The Egyptians were seriously getting majorly physical and it took a few locals to pry the original troublemakers apart.
We were on and overnight train and at all the major stops (more than 30 seconds) street peddlers would walk down the aisle selling their fruit, plastic combs, etc. Plus, if you got more than one salesman in the carriage at the same time it was utter chaos. Egyptian sellers believe that the volume level of their voices sells more goods. The louder the voice the more stuff he might sell. Wrong. More than one salesman in the carriage at once? They'd have a competition to see who could scream the loudest; each trying to outdo the other. This is all well and good when you're awake, in fact it offers a twisted type of entertainment for those of us who weren't used to Third World travel yet. The only problem is at three or four in the morning it's less than amusing and one begins to wish horrible things, like an acute case of laryngitis, might attack someone nearby.
Our train to Aswan took 16 hours and for the last four hours or so the carriage was completely empty except for these two younger Egyptian guys. We were sitting there and these kids asked the tall Egyptian (for the fourth time) if he wanted to buy nuts and the dude pulled out a knife and said in Arabic something to the effect of "Get the hell out of here - I don't want any nuts." The kids hightailed it out of there, never to bother us again. We all had a good laugh after that. The two dudes were about our age, one really tall the other shorter, smartly dressed. They weren't friends; they'd met on the train down. The smaller guy's name was Tarek (who'd been sitting next to me for the duration of the ride). and the taller one's name was something like Havall (we'll call him Keshava for short). Tarek worked for a hotel and was in the water business while Keshava was a student at Cairo University. Neither spoke much English, so it took a lot of pantomime and patience to communicate. We sat with them for a while and by the time we got to Aswan they wanted to help us to make sure we'd get to our hotel. (This is where it gets weird.) Tarek was way mellow, but Keshava wanted to hang around us, etc., which made us put up our guard. We all got a cab into town and after looking at one hotel that was too expensive I went scouting around for a cheaper place with Tarek. I'd handed Rich my day pack when we'd gotten out of the cab so I could put my big pack on, but I forgot to get it back from him. I went off with Tarek and found a hotel while Rich and Sarah waited with Keshava a few blocks away. I went and got them and we all checked into this hotel in the center of the main market. When I returned to lead them to the hotel Keshava was no where to be found (not that I was really looking for him anyway). When we'd gotten all our stuff up into the room I realized that my day pack (containing my plane tickets, camera, and glasses) was missing. Rich said he hadn't seen it since getting out of the cab. With the realization of having to get all this shit replaced Rich and I ran back through the market to the spot where we'd been dropped off, and we'd left in such a hurry that Rich hadn't bothered to put on a shirt. The pack wasn't where we'd been dropped off, so Rich and I tried to piece together what had happened when out of nowhere Keshava appeared telling us to go back to the hotel with him - he said he knew where the pack was. He also said to get back to the hotel because Rich was out in public without a shirt on - I guess that's a no-no in Egypt.. Weird - he'd disappeared before, then when we're out in the market looking for my pack he appears and says he knows where it is. We went back to the hotel and once we were in the lobby Keshava went running off into the market. He returned a minute later carrying my pack, which looked like it had been dragged through the scum of the market. My pack had been locked shut, so all the thief could manage to pull out of it was the strap to my camera, which was hanging out of the pack when I received it. Keshava handed me my pack and asked me to open it to make sure all my stuff was still in it. It was. I thanked Keshava (even though he may have been the one to steal the pack in the first place) and tried to give him EŁ10 (US$3.25) for returning my pack, but he wouldn't have anything to do with that. We talked for a minute and as I was going into the hotel Keshava called me outside and said if I gave him the EŁ10 he'd show us around the bazaar in a few hours' time. Since I'd tried to give him the money earlier I willingly handed him a tenner and told him we'd meet him later.
After talking with Rich and Sarah (immediately after the incident) we still don't know if Keshava took the pack to try to get money out of us, or if he really did rescue my pack from some other thief. To say the least it made us all a little nervous going out with Keshava later, so we went to the bazaar early with some other people we'd met and left him to his own devices. Keshava was a nice dude, and I still can't tell if he took the pack or not, but the fact that he refused the money I tried to give him immediately after the pack was returned sways my opinion towards the honesty side. We shall never know his true intentions, but I wish I could - maybe then I wouldn't be so suspicious so much of the time while traveling. (Written at the end of the second week of travel. The view changed dramatically after India).
Immediately outside the entrance to our hotel was the outer fringe of the market, the street teeming with vegetable sales people, along with a few turkey salesmen down on the corner. Wandered around the bazaar which was jam packed with fruit and vegetable sellers, animals, and various other vendors. A short way down the road was the main bazaar where the fabric, spice, and curio salesmen did their business. We came across a tailor so I paid her EŁ10 to tailor me a pair of thin cotton pants which would leave me cool yet keep the never ending supplies of flies off my legs. The sun was beginning to go down so we headed down to the Nile and watched the sun set over the water - magnificent. Ate at one of the many floating restaurants on the water then headed back up to our hotel. Here are a few of the things you could order at Emy's restaurant on the Nile: CAPATCHINO (Cappuccino) for EŁ1.00 or AXPRESSO (Espresso) for EŁ2.00. On the way home we stopped and booked ourselves onto a minivan, leaving the next morning for the world famous Abu Simbel temple, four hours south through the desert near the Sudanese border.
18th October 1992, Abu Simbel, Egypt -
We had to wake up at 3:45 this morning to make the 4:00 departure time down to the temple. We drove what seemed like forever through the desert, and I can honestly say there is absolutely nothing between Aswan and the temple. When you think of the remotest, most desolate wasteland, desert-type environment with nothing for miles around, that's what this drive was like. Made it to Abu Simbel by 7:30 a.m. (to miss the oppressive heat of the day) and began our walk around the monument. This thing is massive, plus it was carved into the side of a mountain about 210 meters away from where it sits today. They built a dam and flooded the valley below the plateau we were standing on so they had to cut the thing out of the side of the cliff where it originally stood and move it to higher ground so it wouldn't be damaged. The thing is the size of a small office building and was built in honor of Ramses II. There are four statues across the front of the temple, each representing one stage of Ramses' life: the very young pharaoh on the left to the very old pharaoh on the right. Had a walk through the main monument and the smaller one dedicated to his wife then climbed back in the minivan for the return trip. The drive back was hell - Rich, Sarah and I got the shitty wooden plank seat that moved, and it took forever because I think the driver was low on petrol so he was driving 30 mph through the desert all the way home. It was getting hotter and hotter as we cruised through the desert, making the minivan that much more uncomfortable.
Once we'd returned to Aswan we all took naps and vegged out for a while. Later that evening I was walking down the hall of our hotel when I met this Egyptian man who asked me if my native language was English. He explained he was a teacher of English Literature and that he was in the process of trying to get a job in London. Someone had sent him copies of London's Guardian newspaper with ads for teachers and he didn't quite understand the layout of the ads, as who he should send his c.v. to. I looked over the paper with him explaining the ads and which address he should write to, a very easy task for me, but apparently very difficult for him. The man was really very thankful, then said he was a native of Aswan and asked if there was anything he could do for me. I told him we were interested in hiring a felucca to sail to the city of Idfu, two days' journey up the Nile, and asked him where we could find a good captain (rather than having to deal with the sheister dudes out on the street). He said for us to go to the cafeteria at the Continental Hotel down on the waterfront - that's where the good sailors hang out.
That evening after dinner Rich, Sarah, and I went over to this Continental Hotel, which turned out to be this really run-down locals place with minimal lighting and a few folk out front who looked like they were roughian sailors. We were a little bit unsure about going in, but we'd gotten our information from a pretty honest local. We went inside and made our way through the men huddled around their hookahs smoking their sheesha tobacco until this Egyptian who spoke quite good English came up to us. When we were in Cairo we'd heard about a man named Captain Mohammed who has a gold or silver tooth, so we asked the man that had approached us if he knew of Capt. M. The man led us into an adjoining room, away from the throngs of sheesha smoking sailors and sat us down at a table with him. We said we wanted a good captain to sail us up the river to Idfu, and his response was that Capt. Mohammed was gone but he knew of another good sailor. At that another, younger Egyptian, maybe 24 or 25, came and sat at our table as the man at the table told us this young guy was the captain of a different boat. We asked questions about the trip, price, food, sleeping conditions, if he'd ever sailed the Nile before, and finally asked to see the boat. The captain we'd been introduced to said he'd take us to go and inspect the boat. He was a young man, and quiet which was nice, for we'd heard horror stories about people hiring captains who absolutely would not be quiet for the two days' trip up the river. He took us to his boat and told us he'd cook, buy the food and sail us to Idfu for two days and two nights. The other travellers we'd met in the train station earlier that day found us on the river quay and accompanied us to inspect the boat - we had invited them to go up the river with us, making it cheaper for everyone. Had a look at the boat then after chatting to Edward (British), Simon and (Aussies), the guys we'd be sailing with, we decided to leave early, the next morning.
Sarah and I talked to the captain some more and finally found out the guy's name - Adel. We gave him half the money to go food shopping, then the whole lot of us went to the Nile police to register and tell them we were embarking on a trip and to register. That way if the boat sinks at least the Egyptians know who died. Once all this was done Rich took the other three guys back to the hotel while Sarah and I stayed behind with Adel. You see, he had mentioned earlier he might be able to organize some smoking materials for the journey, so he invited the two of us to tea to sort it out. He took us to a locals tea house where we had our over sweetened black tea and a few rounds of sheesha with him. Over tea Sarah and I talked to Adel and learned he was 25 years old and has an 18 year old wife in a village near Idfu (our final destination) and that he only sees her two days a week. We were both pretty surprised at that, but we knew that we were learning first hand about the local Egyptian culture. We gave him some money and he told us not to worry, so we left to go pack for our departure the next morning at 8:00 a.m.