Sunday, 26 January 2014

Night bus to Cairo - Chapter 4

Once we were beyond border control, Renata and I found ourselves on the incredibly hot and dusty Sinai Peninsula pondering over our next move. The destination we had in mind was a backpacker and hippie hangout called Dahab, which Luke and I had heard about during our weekend in Jerusalem. A guy that we'd met in the hostel told us that he'd been there a few weeks earlier and he'd never wanted to leave. 

Apparently there was an abundance of marijuana in Dahab, as well as a good bunch of people to smoke it with. I'd never smoked marijuana and I was eager to give it a whirl, although a little less eager to get thrown into an Egyptian prison. We planned to chill out in Dahab for a week or so, depending on how much we liked it. It all sounded so idealistic, but how the bloody hell were we going to get there? There didn't appear to be any buses around, and at a distance of 123 miles, there was no way that I was getting a taxi.

The Sinai Peninsula is a strange kind of place. Situated between the Mediterranean Sea to the North, and the Red Sea, on two sides to the South; this triangular piece of land is where Africa and Asia collide. The peninsula has been heavily disputed over the years, due to its geographic position, but in 1982 the Israeli's pulled out and left the Egyptians to it. Despite all that I had heard about Egypt, with its dirty streets, diseases and pushy carpet salesmen, I was looking forward to experiencing a totally new culture.

As we stood there looking confused, a big green Mercedes taxi with an enormous amount of seats, pulled up next to us. The driver leaned out of the window and asked us if we were heading to Dahab. When we told him that indeed we were, he urged us to jump in the back. To which I replied "No chance, it's going to cost us a fortune." The driver smiled back at us and named his price. Given that this was 24 years ago, I don't remember the actual price, but it wasn't much. Maybe the same as a ten mile journey would cost back in England. We jumped in before he changed his mind.

The next 90 minutes were spent hurtling across the arid terrain at an alarmingly fast pace. A perfect blend of fear, excitement and youth came together to create a wonderfully joyous drive, punctuated by much laughter. I had a feeling that the taxi driver was stoned, but I didn't really have a point of reference as to how a stoned person should act, so I couldn't be sure. Maybe he was just a lunatic.

We arrived in Dahab sometime in the late afternoon and immediately searched for somewhere to stay. The choices back then were more than a little limited, and amounted to about four different camps. We chose a place called Mohammed Ali's camp, which you can imagine, caused a few laughs. Little did we know, that half of the Arab world were called Mohammed Ali. The camp was surrounded by a six foot high wall, rather like a fort, and there wasn't anything really camp-like about it. I was expecting tents, but instead we were shown to a very basic wooden hut with a two mattresses on the floor. After the building site in Eilat, I must say, this place felt like the Hilton.

Until the mid eighties Dahab was a small Bedouin fishing and goat herding village which was inhabited by less than 30 families. Gradually however, the village started to change into a mainstream resort. First came the casual drifters, who fast turned into the hippies, who were closely followed by the backpackers, adventure tourists, and eventually sometime in the late nineties it became fully commercialised. When Renata and I arrived in May of 1989, it was somewhere between the hippie and the backpacker stage. I was to return to Dahab more than ten years later in 2001 and it was virtually unrecognisable as the place I'd once stayed.

At least ten people that we knew from the kibbutz had travelled to Egypt before returning to report their findings. Their findings were not good. Only one of them had managed not to get sick. One Dutch girl had almost died of hepatitis A, which she picked up during her stay there. Renata and I were under no illusions that we were going to be exceptions. However we did not anticipate that one of us was going to get struck down on the first meal. This is what happened to Renata. She spent the next two days in agony with a terrible stomach ache, while I wandered around Dahab alone trying to score some weed. This turned out to be quite terrifying because I heard rumours that many of the people selling were undercover cops, trying to lure you into a trap. Eventually, I got brave enough to approach one of the guys, who was beckoning too me from the bushes, and I was rewarded with a massive bag of grass for around $3. It could have been anything though and I wouldn't have known, so was my lack of experience in this field.

Eagerly I returned to our dwelling, where a very sick Renata attempted to roll me some joints. Coming from Holland, I thought that her chances of success would be far greater than my own. Who would have known that you were supposed to put a filter on the end? Certainly not us. I lit my newly made joint and before I'd got anything from it, my nose was on fire. After five attempts, and an incredibly sore nose, I gave up. It became my goal, over the next hour, to give my weed away to somebody who had more of a clue what to do with it than me. Which basically meant anybody in the world.

Giving the weed away proved to be more nerve-racking than purchasing it in the first place. In hindsight, positioning myself in the bushes and whistling at any passer-by that resembled a hippie, was probably not my best plan of attack. Most of them ran a mile. I gave up after an hour and threw the bag at a bunch of hippie looking characters, who must have thought that they had received a gift from the weed god.

The next day we left Dahab on a night bus to Cairo (which I bet you have difficulty in reading without singing Night boat to Cairo by Madness, in your head). Renata was still in agony, and I was more than a little paranoid that the weed police were following me. We'd done very little in the form of activities, during our time in Dahab, but at least we'd got to see the sweeping bay before it was saturated by hotels restaurants and bars, as it was when I returned in 2001.
The night bus to Cairo was not a pleasant experience, as you can probably imagine. Renata's dysentery had reached such a level, that I was beginning to worry that she was dying. She spent the entire journey in pain and sweating profusely. Believe me, if there is any place that you don't want to be when you're feeling like that, it's on an Egyptian bus. I took on the role of her protector, but there wasn't much that I could actually do apart from reassure her that everything would be okay, and I wasn't altogether sure that it would. Our arrival in Cairo could not have come soon enough.

I don't recall how we got to the hotel from the bus station, I am assuming that a taxi took us there. Somehow though we ended up in a hotel which was very close to Tahrir Square (the heart of 2011 uprising) . If we opened the shutters and stuck our heads out of the window we could see the square a few hundred meters away. However, the shutters remained firmly shut for most of our time in the hotel, the noise of the traffic on the street outside was enough to drive anybody insane. This was the first time that I had visited a "third world" country and I was instantly fascinated. The dust, the dirt, the beeping horns, the dilapidated buildingsthe whole package excited me immensely. It was like somebody had taken my world and turned icompletely upside down.

After checking into our room we went directly to bedA real bed. Not a mattress on the floor of a hut, not a block of concrete on a building site, and certainly not a squeaky bunk in a smelly dorm. This was a bed fit for a king (well not quite), and I was damned if I was not going to make the most of it.
We elected for a twin room with a shared bathroom. Our budget was obviously the prominent factor in this decision. If we could have afforded it we would have had a private toilet each. In light of what was to come, it would have certainly made our stay more bearable. As it was, the bathroom was only across the corridor, so things were not too bad (or so it seemed). The two single beds were separated by a bedside table with a large antiquated telephone on it. And it was this telephone that began to incessantly ring at 3 am. 

Despite my firm belief that somebody had rung the wrong number the ringing just wouldn't stopIgnoring it didn't appear to be effective. Begrudgingly, I was forced to answer it, I mean, what if it was reception telling me that the hotel was on fire? This being Egypt, it was far from an unlikely scenario that the fire alarms were out of order.

The call went as follows:

Me: Hello.

Caller: Hello Andrew (in a very camp voice).

Me: (thinking that it was weird that the caller was using my name) yes, who is it?

Caller: Andrew, do you want to come to my party Andrew? (he seemed to like saying my name).

By now Renata had been lured in to my conversation, and she was looking interested in who was calling. "Who is it?" she mouthed to me. "I have no idea," I mouthed back, "somebody who wants me to go to his party," I told her. Her confused expression, mirrored my mind.

In his insistence to get me to go to his party, the caller must have said my name at least ten times over the duration of the next minute. Eventually I had to put the phone down on him. After a brief discussion about the weirdness of this call, Renatand I went back to sleep.

The source of the call was revealed to me the next morning at breakfast. We sat ourselves down to eat and a rather camp looking waiter came over to take our order.

"YesAndrew, what would you like to eat?" he asked me, whilst giving me a sly little wink. I was tempted to say, "I know what you'd like to eat, you dirty bastard!", but I refrained. I could only assume that he had been through the hotel's guest list to find out my details.

There was no denying it, in Egypt I was a cock magnet. Over the next few weeks I was to get eyed  and chatted up by Egyptian men, on many occasions. On one such occasion, I went to buy our train tickets to Luxor, and as I was walking down the platform I noticed that I was being followed by about ten guys. Every time I turned around, they all stopped and pretended to be tying their shoelaces or reading the paper. It was the most ridiculous scene that I had ever encountered. I can only put my magnetism (or should I say fagmetism) down to my appearance at that time. That is, I was skinny, with short blond hair and a gold earring in either ear. If you remember the group Bros, then you'll know the image that I was aiming for. If you don't know who they are, I urge you to Google them now, so that you have a clear image of the look that I am talking about.

After breakfast it was time for some sightseeing. I am not generally a person to get excited about museums, but there are certain museums in the world that can't be missed. The Egyptian museum in Cairo fell into this category. How can a person not get excited about mummies, death masks and treasures pilfered from pharaoh's tombs? Although I was slightly disappointed to find that most of the good stuff from Tutankhamun's tomb was actually on display in the British museum in London. The very idea of this seemed very British to me. I could just imagine the curator at the British museum ringing up the curator at the Egyptian museum, and saying "Come on now old boy, hand it all over, you know that it's going to be wasted on your uncivalised country."

From the museum we headed to the pyramids. It is a little known fact, that there  are 138 pyramids in Egypt? I certainly didn't know, until I just did a quick Wikipedia search. However, it is the Great Pyramids of Giza that attract all the attention, so this is where we headed. There are so many wonderfully scientific facts about these, the oldest and only remaining ancient wonders of the world, that I don't know where to begin. 

There are three pyramids at Giza, each built with such precision that, even now modern technology can't replicate them. The sides of these pyramids were oriented to the four cardinal points of the compass, and the pyramids are estimated to be constructed of 2,300,000 stone blocks, some weighing up to 16 tons. The Great Pyramid, also known as Cheops was, for over four thousand years, the tallest building in the world. The list of incredible facts, goes on and on, but as a 19 year old, the only fact that I cared about, was that a Welsh guy had ascended one of the pyramids a few weeks earlier and had drunkenly fallen to his death. This fact excited me very much for all the wrong reasons. Mainly for the morbid curiosity surrounding it, but also the fact that these magnificent structures were actually climbable. In my head, the challenge had been set.

What the travel brochures don't tell you about the pyramids is that they are unbelievably close to the built up city. Any photo that you see of them would have you believe that they are in the middle of the desert, which stretches on for miles in every direction. This most certainly is not the case, indeed if the cameraman were to pan around at 180 degrees, you would be able to see that there is  a KFC and Pizza Hut, no further than 200 meters away. To further shatter any illusion of mystery that I may have had, the Sphinx, which normally sits so proudly in the middle of the pyramids, was in the middle of a maintenance program. If I closed one eye and stared hard enough, I could just about make out its shape through the scaffolding that it was enshrouded in.

Fast food restaurants, and scaffolding aside, I was totally overawed by the sheer size of the pyramids. I couldn't believe how big each stone was. Any ideas of climbing them that I harboured, were soon forgotten after it took me 30 minutes to clamber up the first two stones. I decided that my attempts to follow in the Welshman's footsteps were probably a bad idea. Instead, I took the more sensible option, and went deep inside the Pyramid of Cheops. I didn't even realise this was possible, so it was an unexpected treat. Although being told that I had to leave my camera with a very unofficial looking guy at the entrance, left me feeling more than a little anxious. I didn't enjoy my time in the pyramid, one iota, because I was too concerned that the guy was going to have away with it. When I eventually emerged into daylight again and realised that he had not stolen it, I felt as though I had been robbed of the experience.

Apart from the museum, the pyramids and my fagmetism, I don't remember too much else about Cairo, apart from the fact that I got sick, and spent at least a day, sat on the toilet squirting out of my arse. Unable to detect when the next bout of liquid shitting was about to occur, I found that it was far more pragmatic to remain seated on the toilet rather than return to my bed. It only took me two pairs of boxer shorts to find this out. These were both lost to the Cairo street below our veranda, as I tried to surreptitiously wash them without Renata seeing me.
 I also recall that I still felt terrible as we boarded the train to our next destination of Luxor.

Being young, poor and foolish, we decided to take a normal seat (not a sleeper) on the overnight train from Cairo to Luxor. This would have been fine, had the wind not been knocked from my sails, but as, it was, it was pretty damn atrocious. I generally say that I can sleep anywhere if I have a pillow. Not only did I not have a pillow, I also had zero room to stretch my legs. It wasn't all bad though, the view from the train window as it weaved it's way through the beautiful rural terrain, was magnificent. Watching life pass by on the River Nile is a sight to behold. What can be better than seeing water buffalo lazing in the mud, ladies washing clothes, children having fun, people bathing, and feluka's sailing majestically down the great river? That is, apart from seeing all of the above whilst not suffering from dysentery. It was also on this train journey that I met some fellow travellers who would have an impact on the next five years of my life. They told me that I could further my travels by working on a summer camp in America. I wouldn't follow their advice for another three years but at least I now had a focal point.

Luxor is small, but it's incredibly spread out. The town is on the east side of the river and the Valley of the Queens and Kings are on the west side of the river. Hiring a bike is the best way to go. So this is what we did. During the ferry journey I had another one of those wonderful travel moments, when the magnificence of life, reaches out, grabs you by the balls and swirls you around in circles. Although, it was nothing in particular, the moment was so overwhelming that I made the decision to attempt to capture these moments on my mental camera. The camera being activated by closing my eyes and making a conscious effort to capture the image forever. I even made the click of the camera shutter to help me revoke this memory. It worked, and even now, almost 25 years later, I can still see that image (and many others), at my leisure.

Once we had crossed to the west bank of the river, we spent the day cycling around the valleys, of the Queens and the Kingswhere the Pharaohs and their wives had been buried, for a period of 500 years between the 16th and 11th century B.C. Far too long ago, for my mind to comprehend, that's for sure. Unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of the tombs designers to prevent it, the tombs were all raided of their treasures. All that is, apart from the tomb of Tutankhamun, which lay undiscovered for over 3000 years. When it was finally discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, he allegedly ignored a curse which would be placed upon any unwelcome visitors. Story has it that this caused a massive power cut in Cairo at the exact same moment that the tomb was opened, as well as being attributed to the early deaths of many of those that were present at as they entered the tomb. In hindsight my visit to King Tut's tomb, may have responsible for the bad luck that was to follow over the next few weeks.

There was one more surprise in store for me before I left Luxor. As I was wandering around the city alone I bumped into a Dutch guy called Rob, who had been on the Kvutsat Schiller with Renata and I. In fact he had arrived in the same intake of volunteers as Renata. It's a good job that he spotted me before I spotted him, or I maybe would not have recognised him. He appeared to have lost half of his body weight and looked incredibly pale and gaunt. Apparently he'd decided to stay in Dahab selling marijuana, but had been busted by the Dahab police. According to his tale, he'd spent a month in jail and was desperately saving money to pay for a sex change, which would allow him to escape the country. He even opened his mouth to show me how he stored razor blades to protect himself. Such was my naivety at this point that I would have probably given him money to aid his cause, if only I had any. However, my funds were running so incredibly low, that I had contemplated selling my passport for $500, a few days earlier when asked to do so some dodgy looking Arab guy.

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