Went to Egypt a couple of weeks back.
And I realised I have become incredibly blase about travelling. I have an international flight in the early afternoon – and I don’t start packing, or thinking about packing, or anything at all – until several hours before. And when I got there, there was absolutely no sense of anticipation, trepidation, wonder, or anything. The hawkers, taxi drivers, etc – became accepted and normal as soon as I stepped off the plane. All of which made me think I definitely need to go somewhere completely different – and that is why I’m definitely going to North Korea next year. In fact, I might book a trip this afternoon – to force me into it. And by jeebers, I’ll be crossing fingers that the leadership changes hands while I’m there.
Anyway – Egypt. Regardless of my suddenly realising I had a stupid blase attitude towards the general process of travelling – Egypt was still cool, and definitely worth a visit. It’s got these big things made of rock – in a pyramid shape. And statues and temples and tombs and what-not, all over the shop. Plenty of them. Oh – and I read a book which reckons it was the centre of the last human civilisation, set up by Noah. Or something like that.
So – how did the whole trip happen… Well, managed to pack a couple of backpacks with enough technology and clothing for such a trip – watched some ‘Arry Potter – and then headed off to Heathrow. Ate some terrible, terrible airport food, bought some more technology – Ben bought 1.5W of portable speaker power, while I opted for a mammoth 5W. My choice got mad propz from the store clerk. Ben’s did not. And then we got on the plane, where my personal entertainment system worked pretty well, allowing me to watch a selection of movies and television shows. Ben’s did not.
We arrived in Cairo at about midnight, and accepted one of the first taxi drivers to offer his services. This was the first point where I realised I’d been so blase about this trip that I hadn’t bothered to do any research whatsoever. I had no idea of what was an exorbitant taxi fare, or if there were alternatives to taxis. But – I earn the mighty British pound – which is 8 times the strength of the weak Egyptian pound – so let’s act like careless tourists! We got to the hotel – a nice sanitary soulless Holiday Inn, booked with my loyalty points, for convenience for our first night. Of course – I hadn’t actually booked it for this night, but the next. But went to the counter, just to let them know we were there, and that could they please let us know at what time we could check-in for the following night (hoping against hope that they would let us effectively check-in a day early). “Yes sir, we’re fully booked out currently – but as you’re a Platinum member (I’m a Platinum member, you see) – I’ll make sure that as soon as somebody checks out, we’ll make the room and let you know. And – here’s a complimentary bottle of water each, and follow me to the bar, would you like a complimentary drink?” Sometimes, I love being a “Platinum member” more than I realise that it makes me a dick. Mostly just watching my friends’ faces as I’m being treated like some executive wanker. Anyway – we accepted this free drink – and had our first taste of egyptian beer. Not good. Our first experience of Stella raised fears for the following two weeks. But, I struggled through mine – and then we wondered what to do for the following 10 or so hours. I came up with the bright idea of leaving our stuff, and heading to the pyramids to watch sunrise, seeing as we were up anyway. That was a grand plan – so we proceeded to sit around waiting for an appropriate time to go do this. And got more and more tired, and started to realise that age may have caught up with us. It was no longer quite so easy to stay up all night. And eventually, we found a couple of couches hidden away somewhere, and lay down for a quick short kip before we needed to head to the pyramids. And then the time rolled around when we should really start moving. And we did not. And then it was about 9 or 10 am – and the hotel manager came and found us – and told us he had a room for us. Sweet. A bit of form filling, etc – and then we had a nice big room with 2 big beds – and we did some more sleeping.
And then, realising that we were completely useless, it was pretty much assured that nothing was going to happen that day – other than recuperating after only 1 day of our trip. Yes – pathetic. But – it turned out alright – we dithered about eating – eventually doing some of the internet research we should have really done before we left – and then had a swim and food at the hotel pool. And organised a tour through the hotel for the next day – thereby removing any impetus for action or decisions from ourselves. This proved to be a recurring theme for the rest of the trip.
So – the next day, we arose – I had breakfast in the executive lounge (yes – wanker) – and then checked out, and met Muhammed – our tour guide for the day. The plan was to see the Cairo Museum, pyramids, sphinx, and then go to train station and head up to Alexandria. A good plan – making the most of the day, after completely wasting the previous one. And the plan was executed well. We headed to the museum, where we saw lots of stuff. Mummified crocodiles, mummified bulls, statues, boats, etc. And then the one airconditioned room which held all of the stuff that Tutankhamen was wearing in his tomb. And yeah – that guy liked to accesorise. And his death mask – pretty sweet. The museum is definitely worth visiting – just for that one room. After the museum – it was decided that this would actually be the best time to head to the train station, and buy some tickets. So – did that, and got my first look of Cairo train station (named Ramses) – currently under renovation. I’m sure named after such a guy as Ramses, the station will be great when it’s finished – but at present, one walks over, under, and around construction materials and rubbish. And later on, it was another time where I thought – “Why didn’t I find that strange?” But – we got our tickets anyway. And then drove out to the pyramids. And driving on the ring road, was probably the first time we got a proper view of how vast Cairo is. It’s just this big sprawling concrete mess – with ridiculously tall minarets popping up all over the place. And then – I happened to look out through the windscreen to see the tops of the pyramids towering over a hill. Sweet. We bought all necessary tickets, including those to go inside the two larger pyramids – and entered the site. And yeah, the pyramids are big. My favourite fact about them used to be that the largest one, Khufu’s, was the tallest man-made structure in the world right up until the Eiffel Tower. Built in around 2500 BC – and stayed the tallest right up until only 120 years ago. The architect’s gotta be pretty happy with that. Correction – that was my favourite pyramid fact. Until I read Pyramid, by Tom Martin. Which taught me that they were actually built by the previous iteration of human civilisation – possibly by Noah? – and that they are actually part of a giant power plant, which harnesses the power of Earth’s rotation. All powered by the Benben stone. Fact.
So yeah – they’re big. But not particularly roomy. We went inside the two larger ones – Khufu’s & Khafre’s – and there wasn’t really much interior design going on. The tunnel to get to the main living (appropriate term?) area in each was rather narrow and low – making the constant 2-way traffic rather difficult. And then one reaches the end – and you figure out this huge pile of rock is actually a studio/bedsit. With no kitchen or bathroom – presumably communal facilities outside. But – lovely high ceiling, and well insulated. To test out how much room there really was – and whether one could have a party there – I performed the standard test. A woop-woop-woop. Successful. And then I tried out the bed. A single, and not particularly comfy. Still – <insert joke about sleeping like the dead, or some-such>. Ha! Anyway – altogether, rather claustrophobic – and very hot when dressed up nice with suit and tie. So – we exited, did a spot of break-dancing, and went for a nice relaxing camel ride. The ships of the desert, but with no onboard bar. Our camel man forced us into several hackneyed poses in front of the pyramids, making it look like we’re picking them up, or some such. Why? Why do people do that?
Anyway – off to the sphinx. Not as big as I expected – but still, bigger than anything I own. Yes – even the ego. So – we took some clever trick photographs – looking like I was giving it a hongi. Why? Why do people do that? And then – off to lunch. ‘Authentic egyptian food’, apparently – with our guide and driver. And yep – pretty good. My soup was better than Ben’s – but they were all pretty good. And after lunch – we headed back to the train station, feeling sorry for our guide who had constantly been helpful and chatty, but visibly confused by these two tourists who seemed to find absolutely nothing interesting. We both did feel rather guilty. We were interested. And I loved the pyramids. I’m just too lazy to show any reaction. Sorry. So, I think he was quite relieved to be rid of us. And we were at the under-construction train station. We took the oppurtunity of having plenty of free time to buy tickets for the sleeper train from Cairo->Aswan in about a week’s time – having drawn up an itinerary for ourselves by this point. And were lucky that there was a cabin available – as most people book these a month in advance.
And then we were in Alexandria. With a little sleazy kid that had befriended me on the train (not reciprocal) – by talking about the bunces, and how a russian prostitute told him he was good in bed. (From the context of the
conversation monologue – a ‘bunce’ is a girl of loose morals. A girl you could find at a bar, and dance with – perhaps more – but not a prostitute. I think.) Anyway – this chap followed us, constantly talking – trying to make me promise that we would meet him the next day, and have lunch at his place – maybe go to a party with some bunces afterwards. Seemed rather upset that I wouldn’t promise, and kept mumbling “maybe”. “But you can trust me Kruse! You trust me don’t you? I trust you Kruse. You’ll call me tomorrow yes, and we have lunch at my place – then maybe a party, or go to your hotel room and drink champagne? I trust you Kruse.” I didn’t betray his trust. In that I never made the promise. But eventually he gave us directions for the street we needed to walk down – and he headed off, fully expecting that he would be hosting us for lunch the next day. I hope he didn’t brag too much to his bunces about his whitey friends coming around. Anyway – his directions were good. Unfortunately, we were not so good at understanding/following them – and we spent quite some time walking in the wrong direction – lost in Alexandria at about 11pm. But eventually asked for help, and had a posse of guys trying to understand where we wanted to go. Once again – got good directions, followed them for a while, then nearly got lost again – when a car came screeching up, and some of the chaps who had been giving us directions turned up to put us back on track. And we got to our hotel. Checked in, got the 2nd to last room – 5 minutes before a group of 3 turned up. But the owner asked them if they were American. They were. And then suddenly the owner remembered that the other room had been booked out by internet booking. Brilliant. And even more brilliant – a booze store on the very corner of our street. Having been nearly 24 hours since the last alcohol – we bought up some beers, deciding to try some brands other than Stella – and sat on the seafront having a few quiet bevvies and deciding that we liked Alexandria.
Alexandria was indeed good. The next day, we walked back to the train station – in a straight line this time. A 15 minute walk, rather than the 1.5 hours we’d taken the previous night. Bought some train tickets for the next day back to Cairo – and then headed off to see tourist stuff. Wandered through some alleys and what-not, as I remembered reading this was a very poor and dirty part of town. But – all good, and we found Pompey’s Pillar. Had a look at that (good pillar by the way), and then wandered off to find the Catacombs of Kom es-Shouqafa. Which are only about 2 blocks away. But, we got lost – and walked back and forth several times, attaching a similarly lost american girl to our group, then down some very small dusty alleys – before a local chap told his son to lead us there. And it turned out to be exactly where I thought it was. Honestly. So – the catacombs. Pretty sweet, I guess. Not to the same extent as those in Lima – but not bad. Bribed a guard to show us into a different tomb which wasn’t open to the public – but not really worth it. The main catacombs were definitely the best, although the bottom level is flooded.
And then – we decided to walk back into town, to maybe get some food, and head to the library. After a few blocks though, the american seemed to get a little edgy, and said goodbye, while hopping onto a tram. Not sure why. Anyway – we kept wandering down random streets and alleys, assuming we would at some point hit the coast, which we could then follow along to wherever we wanted to go. Except, we eventually figured out that – exactly like the previous night – there was a 90 degree difference between the direction we thought we were heading, and we were actually heading. But – walking’s good for you. And we eventually found the corniche – and did indeed follow this along. Stopped for a beer – and then headed onto the library. Alexandria used to have a rather large library, you see – until Julius Caesar accidentally burnt it down. A version of events I find highly unlikely. I suspect that Julius was actually frustrated that the library didn’t have a copy of the Millenium trilogy by Stieg Larsson translated into roman for his Apple Tablet – and in a fit of pique burnt it down with his Zippo brand lighter. But – it burnt down one way or the other – and Alexandria has decided, finally, to have another go at having a library. And they seem to have not lost the knack. Quite a nice library, although we just checked it out from the outside. But lots of crazy zany architecture, little quirks such as sundials – which are a lot more complicated than I ever suspected; and a swimming pool – which is guarded, unfortunately.
And eventually – it was evening. And starving. So – started wandering around town again – looking for food. We did rather well at not finding any – until a delicious smell found us. We followed this into a small, very local-type restaurant – and ordered whatever they had. And eventually it arrived. One very large plate of liver each. I’m not sure you’ve ever seen two more downcast people than Ben & I realising we’d just ordered a huge plate of liver each. Not cool. I ate one piece – and then rearranged the rest to look like I’d eaten a decent chunk. I think Ben managed two pieces, and rearranged his plate also. Then we left, before anybody could offer a doggy-bag.
The next morning – we left Alexandria. Train back down to Cairo – a taxi to the airport, and checked in for a flight to Sharm el Sheikh. Being whitey, we were automatically upgraded, and given tickets to the executive lounge. Arrived in Sharm a little while later, and haggled a van to take us up to Dahab. Our driver seemed to be drunk and/or stoned – but drove us up there quickly, while singing along to the radio. And then bragged that it was a 1.5 hour trip, but we’d just done it in under 40 minutes. He also took us to a hostel, which we didn’t want him to do – looking for a kickback. Fortunately, the place he took us to was actually really good, and we took it. We also booked a diving course through the hostel – mostly so that we wouldn’t have to think or decide on what/when to do each day. We then went for dinner – and ordered a selection of seafood. Which came out presented on a massive tinfoil sailing ship structure. With candles in tomatoes and onions, and all manner of madness. Beer was the only thing that allowed us to comprehend what we were seeing.
And then we spent the next three days learning to be divers, and battling our way through the restaurant hawkers each night when looking for dinner. During, and after, the first day of diving – I really didn’t think I would make it through. But by about halfway through the next day, I was fooling around 15 metres under the water – making jokes, and accidentally spitting out my precious oxygen by laughing – but not even dying. And at the end of it, I was amazed and confused my the fact that I actually enjoy it. And might do some more – now that I am a certified open water scuba diver. I’m positive that any of you who have ever seen me around water would not have expected that, yeah? I sure as hell didn’t.
After our last day, we proceeded to get our instructor really rather drunk. Along with a few of the other instructors and general other hangers-on around the hostel. And felt a little sad that we had to leave the next day. When we first turned up, the hostel manager obviously thought we were a waste of time. Turning up one afternoon, booking a diving course – not having enough cash for anything – getting drunk while watching the instructional video, sleeping in, etc, etc. And as we left, I think he hadn’t changed his mind that much – except he won’t underestimate our ability to get stuff done, despite being ridiculous layabouts, again. And our ability to pay – I think he was genuinely surprised when halfway through our drinking binge, I actually managed to present enough cash to cover everything.
And the next day, managed to get up fairly early. Had breakfast, juices, smoothies, milkshakes, etc – and then hired some snorkel kit – to go out for some poor-man’s-diving, and finally make the most of my waterproof camera. Took some nice boring photos of fishies, coral, etc – and generally just spent a couple of hours swimming about – before packing our stuff, and heading back to Sharm airport. Once again – whitey automatically gets upgraded, and entry to the executive lounge (which actually consists of a voucher for a cup of coffee at the cafe). And eventually, back on a plane to Cairo. Get to Cairo – find a taxi driver, head to the train station – and then get on our sleeper train. Very different to the sleeper trains in China – this was our own little cabin, with two bunk beds which fold away. Very Agatha Christie, and nice enough – until I went exploring, and discovered that the restaurant/bar/lounge car did not sell booze.
Over the last couple of days, we had also been corresponding with Petra from Aswan Individual – which is “not a travel agency” – but a “network, founded by a tourist”. Pretty much – a group of tourist type services, which Petra has met over the years – and created a network with a website to help people do stuff. Quite a good idea – especially for two guys who will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid making decisions or organising things. So – we’d given Petra a rough idea of what we wanted to do, and left everything else up to her friends. And they came through. We were met right outside our train carriage by Waleed – who then took us straight to a hotel. Checked into that – and then Waleed took us to introduce us to Mustafa. Mustafa took us on a little boat ride (not a felucca as we’d expected – but we were too tired to really care) – and then for a walk around Elephantine island. His mother had also cooked us a meal – which was very very good. The soup seemed to be Fish-Fins(Newtown) salt-lemon-pepper flavour, somehow. If you’ve never had Fish Fins from Newtown – trust me, this is delicious. And then came the mistake. Trying to force Ben into something new, I insisted that he deal with giving some money to Mustafa’s mother. This went terribly wrong. We thought we were giving a tip – so Ben tried slipping her 40 pounds. In fact, we needed to pay for the meal – and the “normal price” was apparently 50 pounds each. So – some embarassment there. And sure enough, our little trip was suddenly cut short – and Mustafa delivered us back to Waleed. And we discovered that we also needed to pay Mustafa, but didn’t have enough money. Embarassment again, but we borrowed some cash of Waleed, and all good. We were now due to go see some little dam, and maybe a temple – but we’d been falling asleep throughout the boat trip – and it was generally agreed that we just go back to the hotel and rest. So – spent the afternoon resting, a couple of wanders around Aswan – and then I had a cheeky half at the Black Horse, before picking up some takeaways on the way home. Just like a proper London geezer, innit?
And then it was midnight. Which was the start of the next day. So – we got up – and went downstairs, where Waleed was once again waiting. I don’t know if that little guy sleeps, or what – but he was always the same little smooth Teflon guy at all hours. We had ourselves a car and driver – in order to join the military convoy out to Abu Simbel. Slept most of the way, instead of singing Convoy – which will probably remain one of my biggest regrets. But – we got to Abu Simbel in the wee hours of the morning, along with thousands of other people. For today was one of only two days in the year when the sunrise would shine right inside the Great Temple and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall. Ramses’ birthday, in fact. So – there were a lot of people – most of whom had organised this more than one day previously. After getting our tickets, and not joining in the considerable niggle which was occurring in the ‘queues’ – we quickly made our way to the actual temples, hoping to not miss the actual moment. But – there were already a thousand or so people there – in what may or may not have been a queue. We joined this, but nothing was happening – so walked around taking photos instead. And some of the photos we took necessitated us joining the small group of people who seemed to be milling around the entrance. Which, in hindsight, may have actually been the start of the queue. In any case – soon the sun rose, and the people started filing into the temple. The officials there were hustling everybody through – as the ‘solar phenomenon’ would not be in effect for very long. We got caught up in this group of people at the front of the queue – and obediently filed through the temple. And as we left – we saw a television set-up outside to display the event for people outside. The sun had already moved on, such that only about one half of one statue was illuminated any more. I reckon the full effect was only present for about 10 minutes – and that we were 2 of about 100 people who had actually seen it. So – approximately an hour after we had been vehemently cursing “queue-jumpers”, we had effectively become queue-jumpers ourselves, and reaped full benefits. So… children – don’t jump queues. But – regardless of the occasion, and the dancers and festivities and whatever – the temple itself would have been worth visiting any day of the year. In other words – you don’t need to wait for Ramses’ birthday to go visit him. And how many chances do you get to be part of a military convoy? Speaking of which – the said convoy then reformed – and we sped our way back to Aswan, without being attacked by any fighter jets or anything (Ben had a dream on the way down that the convoy was attacked by fighter jets. It turns out that my dreams are premonitions. Ben’s are not.) Back in Aswan, Waleed once again met us, and took us to our boat. Waleed had organised a cruise up the Nile to Luxor for us – and had apparently managed a last-minute cabin on one of the “finest cruise ships on the Nile”. Not really sure how much of this to believe – we arrived. And, yeah – it was actually a mighty fine ship. And looking it up afterwards – was indeed a 5-star boat – and we had a cabin on the top deck, which is usually the most expensive. And we were paying a fraction of what everybody else on the boat was. Ha – suckers. So – we enjoyed a buffet lunch, and then I went for another wander around Aswan. I had ripped my only pair of trousers at the pyramid when breakdancing – so needed something to wear to dinner. My first foray was unsuccessful – instead buying a nice white dress and some books. But – I went back for Ben, and we went for another walk – including a cheeky half at the Horse. And then – we discovered a bazaar. And there, I was able to replace my suit – while also buying matching shirts for myself & Ben. And with that, we were able to return to the boat, via buying some beer&wine under-the-counter from a convenience store, and dress appropriately for dinner, where we were in fact remarked upon by a fellow passenger.
Suddenly, a relatively relaxed day. Slept in, so missed the first stop – but did go ashore to see the temple at Edfu. While all the other passengers filed off and onto a bus, we were left alone to go haggle ourselves a horse and carriage. And off to the temple we went. And a very fine temple it was. Big. I spent a fair bit of time just walking around some of the rooms running my hands over the hieroglyphics. Not sure if I was allowed to do that. But – there’s a helluva lot of them. Ben & I had started thinking at this point that maybe the Egyptians were a little crazy. In the head. Rode our horse-and-carriage back to the boat – in time for a quick swim before lunch. And in the evening – nicely dressed for dinner once more (showing up everybody else on the boat, to be honest) – and then I tried the local wine. Not as good as their temples and stuff.
So now we were in Luxor. Checked out of the boat – but left our stuff there. Went to look at the Temple of Luxor – where one old man whispered at us tonelessly “How are you.” – followed later by another, or perhaps the same, elderly gentleman pointing at me, curling one arm up in a bicep-showing muscle-man gesture – and stating “Ramses”. All of which had us rather confused – on top of the ridiculous number of shinxes which apparently line the old road between two temples – for several kilometres. And then we went to the Temple of Karnak. And then I was totally and absolutely convinced that the Nile was tainted with some kind of drugs several thousands of years ago. There is just no need to buld this stuff. No need. Maybe the pyramids and Edfu I can understand. Or Karnak & Abu Simbel. But – the whole lot? Who builds this stuff? Stark. Raving. Mad. So – once we got sick of this last proof of insanity – we headed back into the middle of town. And had some beer. But didn’t order food, because of the loud cockney woman. Instead, went to next restaurant – Sindbad. A pub crawl was in the making – but an elderly chap somehow managed to talk us into a romantic evening on a felucca, watching the sunset. With some beers. Back on land – things became very hazy very quickly. There was an objective-less meandering which turned into a mission to find an Irish pub – because that’s what you do in foreign countries; there was talking in irish accents while pushing through crowds of whitey – thereby creating false impressions of other nationalities; then a wandering back to Sindbad; and then ordering food, but asking for it to wait until we went back to the boat to pick up our stuff; and then managing to pick our stuff up from the boat, and somehow refraining from one last swim for old time’s sake; then I think there was a return to Sindbad, with some eating, some drinking, some taking and giving of offense, and some howling at the moon. And then there was a taxi to the airport – which we had somehow pre-organised. And at the airport we checked in. But drunken whitey doesn’t get upgrades.
Soon, or not so soon, one can’t be sure – somehow we were back in Cairo – but it was midnight, and our flight was at 7am. So we finished the trip in the same style we started it – absolutely exhausted, sneaking a nap in inappropriate places – in this case, the small cafe in the airport. The very same airport, I must add, which constantly wins the Worst Airport on the website sleepinginairports.com
Then we were back in London. I can also add that during this trip – we each read the entire Millenium trilogy by Stieg Larsson. The Girl Who Played With Fire – and that lot. If you haven’t read it yet – you probably should. Only so that you understand one or more in-jokes in the above narrative which I typed out on my HP Compaq desktop. Not because it’s any good. Because it’s not. As alluded to previously, I also read Pyramid by Tom Martin. Tom Martin lives in Oxford. And I also read C by Tom McCarthy. C is nominated for the Man Booker prize. The others are not. And finally, I read some short stories by Naguib Mahfouz. He wrote much better stories than the two Tom’s or Stieg.
That was my holiday in Egypt.