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Egypt: Stowaway on the Red Sea


22nd October 1992, Luxor, Egypt

This morning we woke up at 7:30 a.m. and rented some bicycles to go see some of the ancient Egyptian wonders situated across the river. We took our bikes and jumped on the 'locals ferry' which cost each of us 50 pts (US$.15) to cross the Nile. We started riding down the asphalt through the desert panting and sweating due to the heat of the day (already). I shall never forget riding past this local's house where a donkey was sitting in the sun in the courtyard out front. The master, an Egyptian woman dressed head to foot in black with only her hands and eyes showing, was pulling on the donkey's rope to try to get it to go sit in the shade. The woman had a friend with her, dressed exactly the same, who was also pulling away on this rope to get the donkey to move. It was getting oppressively hot and if the donkey had sat in the sun for a while it probably would have died from the heat, hence the reason the women were so determined to get the donkey in the shade - donkeys are expensive. The master then picked up her small switch and began whipping the donkey in an attempt to get the thing to stand up. She sat there and whipped the thing on the snout, and the donkey's only response was to bray loudly in protest. She beat it some more but didn't get anything more than some more brays out of the animal. She then left her assistant holding the donkey's rope and walked around to the hind quarters of the animal. She bent down and physically lifted up the donkey's butt trying to get it up. The donkey didn't move, and he was so heavy than after holding it up for a few seconds the woman dropped the donkey to the ground again. It was so funny seeing these 'eyes' doing this feat dressed head to toe in black. We rode off leaving the woman to do her body squats with the donkey. She'll have some awesome back muscles if she keeps it up!

We rode a good distance to the Valley of the Kings to have a look at some of the tombs Mr. Carver unearthed before finding Tutankham's tomb. We went into three of them, each very, very deep in the earth. We had to climb down these totally narrow staircases (or sometimes chicken ladders) to get into the bellows of the tomb. Each was magnificently painted with the most brilliant murals on the walls. It's hard to imagine the Egyptians were so advanced that they could come up with such great colors for their paints. Plus, they were so intricately painted - the detail incredible. The only thing about these tombs is that it was HOT. It was super hot outside - we all almost lost it during the ride up the hill into the valley, but these tombs were pushing that level of heat as well. We went through a few tombs, each with an Egyptian man outside to make sure we didn't take any photos inside without giving him some baksheesh. Tutankham's tomb was 'Closed for Renovation', but I hear it's been like that for quite some time while the Egyptians try to figure out what to do with it.

Bicycled from the Valley and stopped at the first Coke vendor we could find. Actually he was an old man outside this tourist shop situated in the middle of nowhere - hot and desolate all around. This man had a portable cooler of cold cokes and because of his isolated location he could charge us whatever price he wanted. We each paid him the E1.00 (US$.33) and pounded our Cokes. When we were done we returned the bottles to the man, and I guess he was having some sort of guilt trip about over charging us, for now the going rate on three Cokes was E1.00. We each had another Coke then mounted our bikes for the next leg of our journey.

Rode over to the Deir el bahri (Hatshepsut to you and me) temple, which one usually sees on some of the 'Visit Egypt' travel posters. From a distance it looks really good, but when we got up close we noticed it was mostly restored and you couldn't do anything but walk around in front of it, so we weren't too stoked on it.

Hatshepsut & the bikes (81K)

Back on the bikes to go to our next stop, the Ramesseum, a half standing Egyptian temple. It sits off the main road and, although it is technically a ruin a lot of it is still intact. You get a real feel for how large the thing really was. It was interesting walking through it and being able to appreciate the time and effort put into the carvings and paintings. They do that for ALL temples in this country, though. We rested in the shade of a large tree in the Ramesseum complex just enjoying being there. We were in the shadow of an Egyptian monument with desert all around us, and it was pleasant in the shade so we just sat and enjoyed it.

After our rest we rode back to the ferry port and caught the boat across (after the dude tried to overcharge us for the ride). Wandered back to the hotel to rest during the heat of the afternoon then got ready to go over to the nearby Karnak temple that evening to see the son et lumiere (supposedly the best one in Egypt). Got over to the temple but they wanted E18.00 (the equivalent price as our hotel room) to get in so we walked back to the markets and had dinner. After dinner we wandered some more and Sarah got sucked into a silver shop and bought a couple of Bedouin silver bracelets for a really cheap price. There were these French people in there when we entered and they'd just negotiated the price so Sarah said she wanted the same price. Good job. I went and negotiated for a small cotton backpack to put in my pack - I think I finally ended up paying E3.00 for the thing. Wandered a bit more then headed back to the hotel to crash out - we were moving again tomorrow.


23rd October 1992, Luxor to Hurgurdah

Bought our tickets to the city of Hurgurdah, the port city for the ferry across the Red Sea to the Sinai, and once on the bus we met two other groups of people we'd seen before. Rob, Edward and Simon (from the felucca trip) and these other guys. When comparing the priced of our bus tickets each group had paid a different price - very typical of Egypt. When I first arrived here I was scared about theft, but I realized that the Egyptians won't steal from you, just overcharge you for everything. The bus ride wasn't bad at all, and we even got to see some local color - including the woman who brought a goose and a chicken on the bus for a while.

We arrived at noon and fought off the touts in order to get a hotel room. Hurgurdah is disgusting, and there's nothing there for the backpacker except the ferry to the Sinai. We went straight to the ferry office to see if we could get on Saturday's (the next day's) boat, but were told the boat was full and could only get tickets for Sunday. That would mean staying in this hovel of a town an extra day - something we were not prepared to do. A little background about the city is needed for the reader to fully understand our situation.

Hurgurdah is, as far as I can tell, the armpit of Egypt. The city only exists because it's the gateway to the Sinai, and that's the tourist draw. There is a ClubMed resort 150 k's down the coast at Queisar, but why were the prices here so expensive? The city is really dirty, there's tons of construction going on, and all the buildings that are supposed to be finished lave iron reinforcement bars sticking out of the roof as though they were going to add an other floor or something. Everything in this town was so expensive, for they were out to screw the tourists while they had them in town. Now, keeping them in town seemed to be the biggest problem - hence the reason we couldn't get on the boat leaving the next morning. The whole town seemed to have this conspiracy going where they'd try to keep all the tourists in the city as long as possible. We asked all sorts of people and always got the same answer - the ferry departs the day after tomorrow. Plus it didn't matter who you asked, be it the shop owner or the beggar woman in the street, the answer was always the same. We finally figured out that if you're a tourist and you haven't been in Hurgurdah the mandatory two days (all the locals have telepathy and can tell how long you've been in the city) then the boat always leaves the day after tomorrow. Rich has this theory that when they pipe the prayers over the loudspeakers in Arabic the last line is always, "Remember, tell all tourists the boat leaves the day after tomorrow."

Anyway we wandered around Hurgurdah, accepting the fact we weren't getting ferry tickets for the next day, eventually returning to our room at the Sunshine House to relax. We did change in to our swimsuits and walk down to the water, but all the hotels with beach front property either had a huge fence around it or wanted to charge us to sit on the beach. We were all pretty tired, so we went back to the room planning to drink a bottle of Stoli and mango juice to entertain ourselves. Our hotel manager came in and told us the boat was the day after tomorrow, but since we'd have to stay a second night would we like to go on a snorkeling day trip. We said no way and sent him on his way - a feat in itself since he really wanted to stay in our room and talk all night. Early to bed to rest up, for we were going to the ferry the next day, ticket or no ticket.


24th October 1992, Hurgurdah to the Sinai

We woke up at 6:30 a.m., packed our stuff and made a very silent exit from our hotel before the manager could tell us the ferry was full again. We got a minivan to the port and arrived at the boat just as the last of the travelers were getting off. We tried to get on the boat but were stopped by a crew member who asked to see our ticket. I lied and told him we'd been told to buy tickets out here and he said it wasn't possible - we needed to go back to town. I then asked if there was anything he could do to help us get tickets for the ferry that morning. He said he could help us out, but it would cost us E80 (E10 more than the cost of a regular ferry ticket). We agreed for we weren't about to stay in Hurgurdah any longer, so we paid the crewman to stow us away in the belly of the boat. At that he led us through the empty boat to a door at the back above the engine. We climbed down this set of narrow steep stairs and followed the guy the three steps down the short hallway. He opened a door into one of (what appeared to be) one of the crew's rooms. The room was minuscule, maybe eight feet long and six feet wide. There was a bed along one wall, completely covered in old clothing, and a small shelf along the shorter wall, completely covered in crap. One dingy circular ship window lit up the room, making it that much more depressing with the sunlight filtered through the unwashed window.

The crew member told us we'd have to stay in this room with our stuff until the boat made it's departure (two hours later) then he would come down and get us, allowing us to sit up on deck during the actual crossing. He headed upstairs and we entered the dingy little room. The first thing that hit me as I entered was the strong mildew stench, and after tossing our stuff on the bed I picked up a newspaper off the shelf and it was covered in green mildew. Great - and we had to stay down here for two hours? Hell, who was I to complain, I was stowing away on a boat. Sarah and I sat on the bed while Rich stood next to the shelf; we were totally crowded in there - I don't think there was enough room for all of us to sit on the bed at the same time. We decided to have breakfast, so Sarah opened up our bread and jam and put it on a newspaper on the bed. As we were eating breakfast Sarah looked over my shoulder onto the wall and spotted a cockroach climbing up the doorjamb just over my head. I turned around and killed it, then I noticed one walking across all the old clothes on the bed, not too far from our breakfast. We got that one onto the floor and quickly finished eating our breakfast, as not to attract any more creatures. After eating we noticed cockroaches all over the place; every half hour or so we'd knock away one that had ventured too close to us. We sat there for a while when Sarah and I decided it might be nice to have a cigarette to kill some time. We lit up and all of a sudden the walls seemed to close in on us; it got really claustrophobic and almost unbearable from the second hand smoke. We put out our ciggies and tried to open the circular window. No dice - the thing was sealed shut. The temperature outside was rising, and as the window was facing east the sunlight was beginning to come in, rising the temperature of our cell. We looked around the room and noticed a hole in the ceiling which looked like it might be a fan of some sort. I turned this switch and with a large metallic groan the fan slowly started to spin, drawing away some of the smoke in the room. It was getting hotter and hotter by the minute and we still had another hour to kill down there. I took a short walk across the hall (one step) to the opposite room, which looked like no human had been in there for about a year. There was a mildewed mattress balanced on some wood structure and there were cobwebs floor to ceiling. It was a little cooler in her, and we weren't as smashed into the other room so I sat in there for a spell, eventually lighting up another cigarette because there was an entire room of air I could pollute without bothering anyone. I amused myself by burning the strands of cobwebs with my lit cigarette before heading back into our claustrophobic cell.

The boat's engines finally started up and we pulled away from the dock (a half hour late). About fifteen minutes later the crew member came down and told us to leave our bags down here and go up onto the deck - he'd get our bags to us before we got off the boat. We climbed out of our dungeon into the sunlight and up onto the outdoor deck just in time to see mainland Egypt pulling away. We were so relieved to be out of that room, and now we were around other tourists. But, we'd done it - we'd actually gotten on the boat and foiled the plans of the Hurgurdah locals. We all laid out on the deck and read our books all day. Our crossing to the city of Sham-el-Shek took a little over six hours which was rather uneventful, but long towards the end. As we were nearing port the crew member who'd stowed us away went downstairs and passed us up our bags by lifting them above his head over the boats engine up the back of the boat to one of the three of us leaning over the edge trying to get a grip on the packs. I could just see one of our bags going toppling into the Red Sea if one of us let our grip slip. Once the bags were up on deck with us the Egyptian came up and told us he'd have to register us with the police upon arrival and asked us each for E5 more. We'd already paid this guy enough so we told him we'd take care of it ourselves. He persisted and we finally got rid of him by telling him we'd give it to him when we got off the boat.

After he harassed us he went over to this other Western guy and I saw the guyhand him a E5 note - evidently he'd also been stowed away somewhere else (God knows where). We disembarked at Sham-el-Shek and made sure to lose ourselves in the throngs of tourists exiting the boat, as not to be found my Mr. crew man who wanted more money from us. We ran out and jumped in the first available cab heading up the coast to the Bedouin village of Dahab. As we were sitting in the cab waiting to leave I could see the dude looking all around the port for us, but before he could spot us our driver fired up the engine and sped off into the Sinai desert.

Our cab driver was a total lunatic, seriously mentally deranged, and spoke like three words of English. As we were speeding along Rich noticed the guy had a couple of problems slowing the vehicle down. Rich leaned over to me and said "Brad, I don't think this guy has any brakes." Great - now I was going to be even more nervous than I already was for the remainder of the journey. I told Rich later that that belonged on the Things You Don't Want to Know List, but that you're only supposed to tell the other person about it after the fact, not during. We made it in one piece to the Bedouin village of Dahab a few hours later and checked into the Muhommed Aly camp, our most basic room yet. For E4 per person a night our room had a window that opened out on to the beach behind, three mattresses on the floor, four walls and a door. No electricity - that was an extra 1 a night so we gave it a pass.

We got changed out of our grungy traveling clothes then went for a stroll through the village we'd be staying in. The first thing that struck me was that the street was lined with candles, and every restaurant was serving dinner by candlelight, giving the whole village a surreal, staged feeling; but it was real. The small cove the village sits on is covered by palm trees giving it that lush oasis feeling amid all the desert wasteland surrounding it. The palms lead down to the beach and each restaurant has seating under the palms. There aren't any chairs, only mats and pillows on the ground, and they've constructed a long wall around each small table, each wall covered in padding and blankets for people to lean on while eating or relaxing. [A small table with a candle completed the scene.]

The buildings are all open fronts (no doors) and a few of them have palm trees growing up put of the tops of the buildings. Rich, Sarah and I vegged at this restaurant and had a nice dinner after a very long day of traveling. Once dinner was finished we walked a little then Rich headed off back to the room to go to sleep. Sarah and I went to one of the beach cafes and split some sheesha, to relax us, before heading to bed.

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